A Myanmar court has acquitted a pro-ruling party social media activist facing charges since 2017 for criticizing the military chief and a firebrand ultranationalist monk on Facebook, in the country’s first acquittal on defamation charges under a harsh Telecommunications Law statute, a free speech group said Friday.
The Tamwe township court in Yangon ruled Monday that Eaint Poe Au, a writer and social media influencer who writes under the name Pencilo, was not guilty of violating Section 66(d) of the law, which outlaws online defamation and carries a maximum two-year jail sentence, Myanmar free speech watchdog Athan said.
The writer, born in 1990, has published several bestsellers in Myanmar. An ardent supporter of the National League for Democracy (NLD), she has written posts on social media criticizing the military and the former military-backed government of President Thein Sein.
In December 2017, Maung Maung Tar, a resident of Yangon’s Hlaing Tharyar township, filed a 66(d) lawsuit against Pencilo for writing posts on her Facebook account critical of Myanmar military commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and rabble-rousing Buddhist monk Wirathu, and about an attack on Buddhist Abbot Ein Daka at a restaurant in Yangon.
Though the court struck down the criminal defamation charges against Pencilo for her writings on Min Aung Hlaing and Wirathu, it decided proceed with a trial over her online comments about the attack on Ein Daka, according to Athan.
“We are grateful that the judicial system is making fair and just decisions,” said Maung Saungkha, founder and executive director of Athan.
“We hope that judges will objectively review the testimony from both sides and issue fair verdicts in future cases in which defendants have been charged under the Telecommunications Law,” he said.
There have been about 240 cases in Myanmar in which defendants have been charged under the law, according to Athan. Eleven of the cases were filed under the previous government, while the others were filed under the ruling NLD government.
RFA emailed Pencilo, who has 1.3 million Facebook followers, for comment, but did not receive a response before publication.
Yin Yadanar Thein, program manager at Free Expression Myanmar, which wants the Telecommunications Law repealed, said Pencilo’s acquittal could set a good precedent for other cases involving similar charges.
“The ruling in Pencilo’s case is the flicker of hope for all people and cases charged under Section 66(d),” said legal consultant Khin Maung Myint, adding that defamation lawsuits should be tried as civil cases, not criminal ones.
“I conclude that this decision puts the rule of law back on track,” he said.
RFA could not reach Myanmar military spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun for comment on the ruling.
Maung Saungkha said statutes like Section 66(d) are not compatible with democracy.
“As we progress towards genuine democracy, the government should try to repeal such laws and clauses limiting the rights of the people,” he said. “Otherwise, these laws will serve as an excuse for the ruling government to prosecute the opposition and critics.”
The U.S.-based civil liberties monitor Freedom House rated Myanmar “not free” in its 2020 survey, which said “Myanmar’s transition from military dictatorship to democracy has stalled under the leadership of the National League for Democracy,” and noted that “journalists, demonstrators, and ordinary people risk legal charges and detention for voicing dissent.”
“Online activity is also subject to criminal punishment under several broadly worded legal provisions, and an increasing number of journalists and social media users faced defamation and incitement cases filed by the military and politicians during 2019,” said the report. On a scale of 100 for overall political and civil liberties, Myanmar received 30, falling between Zimbabwe and Iraq.
Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.