Myanmar’s lower house of parliament on Friday approved minor changes to the country’s Telecommunications Law, used frequently by members of the government, military, and religious bodies to silence their critics and stifle free speech.
Lawmakers, however, left intact much of Article 66(d), the law’s most controversial provision which prohibits use of the telecom network to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate” people and carries a jail sentence of up to three years and a fine for those who violate it.
Amendments to the 2013 law stipulate a reduction in the maximum prison sentence for violators and allow judges to release on bail those charged under Article 66(d).
“We have amended Article 66(d) only for the prison sentence, reducing it to two years from three,” said lawmaker Kyaw Soe Lin, a member of the lower house's Draft Committee.
Another amendment specifies that organizations must obtain permission from a relevant ministry to sue an individual or entity under the statute, he said.
“We have this rule in some previous special laws as well. That way we can’t say that the administrative sector is influencing the judicial sector,” Kyaw Soe Lin said.
The draft document with the amendments approved by the lower house will now be sent to the upper house, he said.
If upper house lawmakers disagree on the approval of the amendments, the changes will be subject to a vote by parliament, he said.
Myanmar journalists and domestic and international rights groups have called on the civilian government of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi to repeal the vaguely worded article which is increasingly used by those in power to accuse their critics of defamation.
More than 70 people are known to have been charged with online defamation under the law according to the 2013 Telecommunications Research Group, which is documenting prosecutions under Article 66(d).
Second bail request rejected
In a related development, three Myanmar journalists charged with violating a statute of the colonial-era Unlawful Association Act, were denied bail on Friday for the second time at their fourth hearing.
A court in the town of Thibaw in Myanmar’s northeastern Shan state rejected the request by Lawi Weng of the online journal The Irrawaddy and Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung of the Democratic Voice of Burma.
Presiding judge Kyaw Moe Thu rejected the request, saying that the defendants’ different places of residence outside Thibaw made it difficult to grant bail—the same reason he gave at a previous hearing. He also said that a witnesses from the plaintiff’s side still needs to testify.
The three journalists were arrested on June 26 for covering an illegal drug-burning ceremony by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group that has been involved in hostilities with the Myanmar army.
The trio has been charged under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Association Act for being involved with an illegal organization. They face up to three years in prison if convicted.
Four other men, including two drivers, were detained along with the journalists for having connections to the TNLA terrorist group. One was released, and the three others are being held in Thibaw prison.
One of the drivers and a musician, who claimed not to be associated with the journalists, believe they should be released.
Myanmar army soldiers saw "only two monks in my car — nothing more,” said driver Aung Mine Kham who was present at the hearing. “The reporters were not in my car.”
“[Authorities] told us they will free us,” he said.
Musician Mine Tun Aye, who also attended the hearing, said he had gone to the drug-burning event to perform.
“I am an artist,” he said. “I went to the drug-burning ceremony to play the drums at a concert during the entertainment segment, but the concert was canceled.”
At the hearing, Major Myat Maw Aung of the Myanmar army presented to the court as evidence a CD with data allegedly copied from the journalists’ cameras and phones, The Irrawaddy reported.
Attorneys for the defendants objected to the evidence, arguing that it was inadmissible and questioning its authenticity, the report said.
The journalists’ next hearing is scheduled for Aug. 25, during which the judge will decide whether to accept the new evidence.
Reported by Win Ko Ko Latt and Kan Thar for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.