So Long, Freedom of Expression
Myanmar’s political reform, which started under the previous quasi-civilian government of U Thein Sein, was applauded for opening up significant space for media freedom. Yet the relaxation on media control, such as the abolition of the Ministry of Information’s censorship board, did not ultimately quell self-censorship or create a culture of journalistic freedom. The Myanmar Army’s blatant and often violent suppression of the media, such as the murder of journalist Ko Par Gyi in 2014 and the decision of the Union Election Commission to outlaw criticism of the military leading up to the 2015 elections are evidence of this attempt to silence journalists across the country.
Such infringement upon freedom of expression and media freedom, as well as limits on the freedoms of association and assembly, however, were expected be abolished and amended after the National League for Democracy (NLD) won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections. 8 November, 2016 marked one year of the election victory and yet recent events have suggested that media freedom remains consistently suppressed under the NLD-led Government, as it did previously.
On 11 November, 2016, two senior journalists from Eleven Media Group, the Chief Executive, Than Htut Aung and the Chief Editor, Wai Phyo, were detained in Yangon’s Insein Prison following their reporting on alleged corruption among newly elected NLD ministers. NLD Central Executive Committee member, U Win Htein, who called the accusations “groundless,” attempted to defend against these reports, stating that the government had already prioritized the elimination of corruption.
This is the latest case of the government using the Telecommunications Law (2013) against freedom of expression, particularly Section 66(d), which provides an overly broad description of offences, including “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network,” all punishable by imprisonment of up to three years. This law, along with Sections 33 and 34 of the Electronic Transactions Act (2004), have been used regularly – both under the previous Union Solidarity and Development Party Government and the current NLD leadership – to prosecute individuals speaking out against the government and public figures. The application of these laws to detain members of the media, or other critics, is in clear violation of customary international human rights law regarding freedom of expression, as entrenched in international human rights instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Regardless of the motivations of the Eleven Media Group when publishing this article, the fact that the government is using such a repressive law to infringe on media freedom is not a good practice for a democratic government. Due process should be followed in this case, and while media outlets should be charged with defamation if they print false allegations, the charge should follow international human rights standards.
International human rights groups have condemned the arrest of the Eleven Media Group journalists over concerns that the move threatens freedom of expression in Myanmar. According to Rafendi Djamin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, “Using repressive laws to stifle peaceful criticism of government officials could cause other media workers in Myanmar to self censor. State officials are not above scrutiny, and journalists have an important role in holding them accountable.”
The Telecommunications Law was also used in the case of Hla Phone, who was accused of posting altered photos and jokes on Facebook of the President and the Commander-in-Chief, including one post that criticized the Myanmar Army’s constitutionally guaranteed 25% representation in Parliament. He was arrested in February and was sentenced to two years in prison on 11 November, with a total of four counts including two of 66(d) and one count of so-called “public mischief” clause of the Penal Code, 505(b).
Recently, the same section of the Telecommunications Law – 66(d) – was used to arrest Myo Yan Naung Thein, an NLD party official, after he made a Facebook posting criticizing the role of Commander-in-Chief, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing in the deteriorating situation of violence and persecution in Rakhine State. This also follows the firing of journalist Fiona MacGregor from the Myanmar Times, after the Ministry of Information complained over her reporting of gang rapes perpetrated by the Myanmar Army during a crackdown in northern Rakhine State. These events signal a severe deterioration of freedom of expression in Myanmar over the last month.
The NLD’s commitment to upholding freedom of expression is flailing. The ongoing persistent use of the Telecommunications Law and the Electronic Transactions Act to prosecute those with critical opinions of the government or the Myanmar Army is likely only going to reinforce self-censorship and a further decline of freedom of expression, not only among members of the media, but also civil society and the public. In order to reverse this trend, the Myanmar Government must immediately repeal the overly broad offences listed in the Telecommunications Law and the Electronic Transactions Act to protect critical and important public critiques of the government or the Army. Failing to do so will only ensure a return to the oppressive media culture of the country’s dark era under military regimes and thus backsliding on critical aspects of the democratic transition.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
Resources from the past week
Statements and Press Releases
Myanmar: Prison reforms must respect human rights
By Amnesty International
ျမန္မာႏိုင္ငံ – အက်ဥ္းေထာင္ ျပဳျပင္ေျပာင္လဲေရးမ်ားသည္ လူ႔အခြင့္အေရးကို ေလးစားရမည္
By Amnesty International
Jailed for Exposing Burmese Army’s Human Rights Abuses
By Burma Campaign UK
New Evidence of Crimes Against Humanity Documented By Burma Human Rights Network
By Burma Human Rights Network
ႏိုင္ငံေရးဆိုင္ရာ ညွိႏႈိင္းေဆြးေႏြးေရး ကိုယ္စားလွယ္အဖြဲ႔ သတင္းထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By The Delegation for Political Negotiation
Bring Rights to Prisons: Amnesty International’s Recommendations on the Draft Prisons Law
By Amnesty International
Briefing Paper: Challenges to Repatriation
By Network for Human Rights Documentation – Burma
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”