Freedom from Expression

“The NLD government still has time to make this right by taking the following actions without delay: Immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and drop charges against those who are being persecuted for their fundamental right to freedom of expression; stop harassing the media and reporters for doing their legitimate work; repeal repressive legislation and enact laws that enshrine press freedom and freedom of expression.”

Myanmar has announced that it will indeed go ahead with the 2020 general election as planned, most likely in November. However, as noted by civil society organizations in light of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, freedom of expression is in decline in the country. It is essential that this fundamental freedom is guaranteed to hold the government accountable, to monitor the fairness of the elections and ensure transparency and fairness in its organization, and to scrutinize the platforms of the political parties that will contest it.

One of the most pressing concerns in regard to freedom of expression and restrictions on the press, is the ongoing internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States. While one township in Rakhine State, Maungdaw, was recently taken off this list, this is probably a tactical PR move from the government given the upcoming reporting deadline to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on progress on implementation of measures as ordered by the Court. The remaining eight townships, however, are black holes of information. This is particularly galling in the context of both the coronavirus pandemic – where information dissemination is key for public health – and the ongoing armed conflict, in which 157,000 people have been displaced and the Myanmar military continues to commit egregious human rights violations. It has now been ten months without internet access in this part of Myanmar. Furthermore, on the same day that the Myanmar government officially announced its first coronavirus cases, they also announced that over 230 websites would be blocked. While the government gave the reason that such sites either contain adult content or spread ‘fake news,’ the reality is that some of these websites are essential ethnic media outlets such as Karen News and the Rakhine-based Development Media Group. These media outlets are not purveyors of ‘fake news’ but trusted local agencies that provide valuable information regarding the ground situation in their respective areas, areas where mainstream domestic or international media do not have access to. This valuable information pertains not just to the coronavirus pandemic, but also on the human rights violations and atrocities committed by the Myanmar military.

While the internet shutdown and the orders to block ethnic news sites occurred in the past year, it is part of a pattern of restrictions and obstacles that the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government has implemented since it came to power four years ago. This is amply demonstrated by the local civil society group, Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization. In their recent report that analyzes four years of NLD government and freedom of expression, they documented how there have been 539 lawsuits filed against a total of 1,051 individuals using legislation – such as the Telecommunications Act and the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law – that is detrimental to freedom of expression. These lawsuits were filed by members of the government, the military, parliamentarians, as well as third parties.

Another local civil society organization that focuses on freedom of expression, Free Expression Myanmar, also published a report this week that is partly based on the results of their survey of journalists in Myanmar and their views on media freedom. They noted that, for the third straight year, journalists believe that media freedom is declining and the responsibility for this lies with the government and the military. There is a belief among Myanmar journalists that the government does not do enough to protect the media, and that the amount of people who believe that freedom of expression has improved is low and is declining each year. In particular, Free Expression Myanmar noted that non-bamar ethnic nationality and female journalists have a lower opinion on the state of press freedom than Yangon-based Bamar journalists. This tallies with the aforementioned situation in ethnic areas, particularly conflict areas such as Rakhine State.

Freedom of expression is just one of many areas of disappointment when it comes to the NLD government. While it is largely acknowledged that it does not have control over the Myanmar military, it does have control over repressive laws that are used to restrict freedom of expression and it does have control over the use of such legislation to file cases against people who happen to disagree with them or the military. In the context of the upcoming general election, armed conflict, and the coronavirus pandemic, guarantees of a free and independent media and people’s right to express dissatisfaction or opposition to the government or the military is essential for a functioning democratic country that is accountable to the people. The NLD government still has time to make this right by taking the following actions without delay: Immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and drop charges against those who are being persecuted for their fundamental right to freedom of expression; stop harassing the media and reporters for doing their legitimate work; repeal repressive legislation and enact laws that enshrine press freedom and freedom of expression. Thus, it can demonstrate its commitment to a more free society and work towards the creation of an environment where people are free to exercise their fundamental right to make legitimate criticism of those in power.

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[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

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Statement on the Plans of Self-care and Mental Empowerment Talks at the Quarantine Centers in Kyonpyaw Township and Ingapu Township

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

Joint Statement on Military Offensive in Rakhine and Chin State

By Canadian Burma Ethnic Nationalities Organization, Nationalities Alliance of Burma (USA) and Coalition of Burma Ethnics, Malaysia (COBEM)

Ethnic Health Committee’s Statement on the Government Formation of COVID-19 Prevention Coordination Committee to Cooperate with EAOs

By Ethnic Health Committee

ကိုပါကြီးအသတ်ခံရခြင်းနှင့် စပ်လျဉ်း၍ တရားမျှတမှုရရှိရေးအတွက် ဟန့်တားနေသည့် အတားအဆီးများအား ဖယ်ရှားရန်

By International Commission of Jurists

Myanmar: Remove Barriers to Justice for Killing of Journalist Ko Par Gyi – New ICJ Report

By International Commission of Jurists

reports

Reports

၂၀၂၀ ခုနှစ်၊ ဧပြီလအတွင်း ရခိုင်ပြည်အရေးနှင့် ပတ်သက်သည့် သတင်းသုံးသပ်ချက်

By All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress

AAPP’s latest Report ‘Of 20 years, the Journey’

By Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

An Unlawful Killing: How Ko Par Gyi’s Death Highlights Barriers to Justice in Myanmar

By International Commission of Jurists

မြန်မာနိုင်ငံဆိုင်ရာလွတ်လပ်သော စုံစမ်းစစ်ဆေးမှု ယန္တရား သတင်းလွှာ မေလ အတွဲ – ၁

By Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar

Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar – May 2020 Bulletin

By Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar

Myanmar Blocks “Fake News” Websites Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

By Open Observatory of Network Interference


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.”

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