Freedom of Expression, Not Suppression Needed in Appeals for Legal Reform

April 26th, 2017  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  7 minute read
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On the third year anniversary of the death of prominent journalist, co-founder and patron of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and former political prisoner, U Win Tin, 23 civil society organizations, including Progressive Voice, called for the establishment of an independent and effective prisoner review mechanism to bring about an end to arbitrary arrests and detentions and the release of all political prisoners in Myanmar[1]. Since the NLD took office in 2015, an alarming number of human rights defenders and ordinary citizens have been charged under the controversial Telecommunications Act. Adding to an even further deterioration of freedom of expression is the increase in threats and unlawful action against journalists criticizing the military and the Government, exacerbating the need for reform of section 66(d) of the controversial 2013 Telecommunications Act.

The Wear Blue Shirt for Burma campaign held on 21 April 2017 was inspired by U Win Tin, who spent nearly two decades in prison for his efforts to bring democracy to the forefront of Myanmar’s political dialogue. Upon his release, he pledged to wear a blue shirt, the same color shirt he had to wear in prison, every day until there were no longer political prisoners. U Win Tin’s message of solidarity remains relevant with 93 political prisoners currently imprisoned, with zero releases during the March 2017 amnesty, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Despite positive amendments to legislation such as the repeal of the 1975 State Protection Act and improvements to the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Law, restrictions on speech continue to threaten the spaces in which political activists and dissidents can exercise their basic rights to engage in the process of transition to democracy meaningfully.

Laws that appear ambiguous in context and attempts to legitimize fabricated arrests have long been used to target and persecute activists. Defamation cases specifically have been on the rise since the NLD achieved a landslide victory in the November 2015 election, with over 40 cases being filed since January 2017. According to human rights lawyers, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) drafted 2013 Telecommunications Act that is used to prosecute human rights defenders is vague and broadly worded, allowing prosecutions against anyone who wrongfully defames or disturbs public order without citing specific examples or providing context to what such actions entail. Further, the law claims protection of the right to freedom of expression unless ‘thought to undermine community peace,’ yet fails to specify terms that would warrant arrest. The lack of context allows the law to be understood subjectively and makes it easy for authorities to strategically target opposition leaders and activists who denounce the military or the Myanmar Government on social media. The controversial law led the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Ms. Yanghee Lee, to speak out against it at the Human Rights Council stating, “it is disappointing to see the continued misuse of laws such as section 505 of the Penal Code and increasingly section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act to suppress voices of dissent, including through arrest and imprisonment.” The loopholes in the vague language of the laws have contributed to a serious crackdown on human rights defenders, allowing enforcement officials to intimidate, arrest and imprison activists and suppress members of ethnic minorities.

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Ms. Yanghee Lee, to speak out against it at the Human Rights Council stating, “it is disappointing to see the continued misuse of laws such as section 505 of the Penal Code and increasingly section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Act to suppress voices of dissent, including through arrest and imprisonment.”

In November 2016, a parliamentary commission advised removing Section 66(d), but Lower House Speaker U Win Myint has maintained support for the law. Well known defamation prosecutions include a woman in Bago who was alleged to have insulted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and another case in which NLD member claimed a local administrator was stealing flood relief. However, a process of selectivity by the authorities have become overwhelming apparent as can be seen in the lack of legal action or pursuit of 66(d) over the controversial remarks made by the ultra nationalist Buddhist-monk, U Wirathu, on social media thanking suspects involved in the assassination of prominent legal expert, U Ko Ni. Yet when the Myanmar Now journalist, U Swe Win criticized U Wirathu in response to these comments, a defamation charge was filed against him. Journalists have a responsibility to report on human rights abuses taking place, but repressive laws have compromised their obligations. Further, stronger legal mechanisms are imperative to ensure the protection of media workers so that they have the freedom to investigate unethical government proceedings without consequence. Human Rights Watch Asia Director, Brad Adams, expressed concern at the lack of reform of the Telecommunications Act stating, “Democratic governments don’t imprison those who criticize or somehow ‘insult’ government officials or the military.”

The war on press freedom continues in Myanmar with increased censorship and a military driven media agenda that revels in fabricated allegations against human rights defenders. Current legislation does not do enough to protect journalists and human rights defenders from spaces to promote the legitimacy of their respective causes in defense of their right to freedom of expression. There must be an immediate cease to the targeting, oppressing, stifling, controlling and silencing of human rights defenders and to halt the practices of arbitrary arrest and detention and all other forms of threats, harassment, surveillance and intimidation by local and national authorities. Further, legal reform requires a transparent process and adequate engagement with civil society that cannot be achieved in such censored, oppressive environments.

[1] 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: Immediately Take Action Against the Security Forces and Village Administrator for Shooting Arakanese Man Dead
By All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress

လံုျခံဳေရးတပ္ဖြဲ႕ဝင္မ်ားနွင့္ရပ္ကြက္အုပ္ခ်ဳပ္ေရးမွဴးတို႕မွ ရခိုင္အရပ္သားအား အေသပစ္ခတ္ျခင္းအေပၚခ်က္ျခင္း အေရးယူေဆာင္ရြက္ေပးပါရန္
By All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress

တုိင္းရင္းသားလက္နက္ကုိင္ေတာ္လွန္ေရးအဖြဲ႔အစည္းမ်ား၏ ထိပ္သီးေခါင္းေဆာင္မ်ားအစည္းအေ၀း ထုတ္ျပန္ေၾကညာခ်က္
By Ethnic Armed Organizations

၁၆ႀကိမ္ေျမာက္ KNU ကြန္ကရက္ရလဒ္အေပၚ IKO၏ သေဘာထားထုတ္ျပန္ခ်က္
By International Karen Organisation

Statement of the 16th Congress of Karen National Union
By Karen National Union 

Burma: RSF calls for thorough investigation into journalist’s murder
By Reporters Without Borders

Joint Statement: Establish an Independent Prisoner Review Mechanism to End Politically Motivated Imprisonment in Myanmar
By 23 Civil Society Organizations

ေတာင္သူလယ္သမားမ်ားနွင္႔ ေျမယာလုပ္သားမ်ားသမဂၢ (ျမိတ္ခရိုင္) မွ စစ္ကိုင္းတိုင္းေဒသၾကီး လက္ပေတာင္းေဒသ ဆားလင္းၾကီးျမိဳ႕နယ္ မိုးၾကိဳးျပင္ အလယ္ရြာ၌ ေတာင္သူမ်ား ေသနတ္ျဖင္႔ ပစ္ခတ္ခံရသျဖင္႔ ထိခိုက္ဒဏ္ရာ ရရွိခဲ႔ၾကရမႈအေပၚ သေဘာထား ထုတ္ျပန္ျခင္း
By 72 Civil Society Organizations



Understanding Regional Human Rights Mechanisms and The Need For A South Asian Human Rights Mechanism
By FORUM-ASIA and Regional Initiative for a South Asian Human Rights Mechanism

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.”