Myanmar NGOs Urge Reform of Defamation Laws Used to Silence Critics

2020-12-11
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Myanmar NGOs Urge Reform of Defamation Laws Used to Silence Critics Myanmar activists stage a protest in Yangon against Section 66(d) of the Telecommunication Law, a harsh criminal statute, in a file photo.
RFA

Over 50 civil society organizations in Myanmar called this week for a reform of six defamation laws used by the government and army to silence dissident voices in the country, urging that complaints against critics be pursued as civil rather than criminal cases.

The statement, signed also by news media figures, lawyers, judges, lawmakers, and businesspeople, called also for sentences already imposed under existing laws to be struck down, and for charges filed in future to cover cases only of extreme and intentional harm.

Yin Yadanar Thei, director of Free Expression Myanmar, one of the petition’s signers, said her group will continue their campaign for changes to the law until criminal defamation cases are reclassified as cases to be handled in the civil courts.

“If the government doesn’t withdraw these criminal charges for defamation, Myanmar’s index rankings for freedom of expression will continue to drop, and Myanmar will never achieve its goal of becoming a democratic nation,” she said.

“All of these issues [of reform] are connected to each other,” she said, adding, “I urge the government to find the political will to accomplish this. I really believe that they can do it.”

Myanmar national leader Aung San Suu Kyi—the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner and for decades arguably the world’s most admired prisoner of conscience—won a fresh five-year mandate in a landslide victory last month by her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

But her first five-year term is winding down with 584 political prisoners now in various stages of incarceration or prosecution, according to the Association of Assistance for Political Prisoners (AAPP Burma), a nonprofit human rights group based in Thailand.

Many of these, including theatrical performers, Facebook critics, and protesting students, were sentenced under Myanmar’s harsh defamation laws, including Section 505(a) of the Penal Code, which targets criticism of the country’s powerful military, and Section 66(d) of Myanmar’s vaguely written Telecommunications Law.

Need for better focus

Appeals for reform will now be addressed to the new NLD government when it forms, said Maung Saungkha from the Yangon-based Athen group.

“The present ruling government appears to be unenthusiastic about making reforms, and the reform process can be enacted only by the parliament, with the new MPs being sworn in only in January,” he said. “And even then, the new parliament many not get to work on this till the middle of the year.”

“I think the new government will be more focused on this if we work on our advocacy then,” he said.

Monywa Aung Shin, a member of the NLD’s central committee, said he welcomed the call for change from the civil society groups, and said the new government will do as much as it can to correct injustices dating from its previous term.

Sentences already imposed under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law violate guarantees of freedom of expression under Section 354 of Myanmar’s Constitution, said court attorney Robert San Aung.

“They have also violated mandates from the [U.N.] Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

“So in the immediate term, changing criminal charges to civil charges will provide relief to these defendants. But in the longer term, we may see that the number of these cases could grow,” he said.

Reported by Thant Zin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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