More than 60 domestic and international rights groups on Thursday called on the Myanmar government to repeal a vaguely worded statute increasingly used by those in power to silence their critics by accusing them of defamation.
Government officials, military officers, and high-ranking monks have been invoking Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law more and more to attack journalists who criticize them or their actions under the civilian government of de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
The article prohibits the use of telecom networks to defame people. Violators are subject to jail terms of up to three years and a fine.
“In the last two years, this law has opened the door to a wave of criminal prosecutions of individuals for peaceful communications on Facebook and has increasingly been used to stifle criticism of the authorities,” said a joint statement issued by the 61 groups.
The rights organizations, which include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, and U.S. Campaign for Burma, urged the Ministry of Transport and Communications, which has been discussing revisions to the Telecommunications Law, to ensure that Article 66(d) is repealed in the amended legislation.
“The current review of the Telecommunications Law offers an important opportunity to repeal Section 66(d) and bring the 2013 Telecommunications Law fully in line with international human rights law and standards,” the statement said.
“Failure to do so would raise serious questions about the government’s commitment to freedom of expression,” it said. “It would, worryingly, leave people in the country at risk of imprisonment simply for sharing opinions online.”
“It would also undermine the government’s reform and responsible business agenda by chilling or even silencing the ability of the public and the media to report on public sector mismanagement, harmful and illegal business practices, and corruption,” it said.
Peaceful expression of views
If Myanmar authorities do not repeal Article 66(d), the groups recommend instead that they ensure that defamation is decriminalized.
“[W]here recognizably criminal acts such as ‘extortion,’ ‘coercion,’ ‘wrongful restraint,’ and ‘threats’ occur in the law, they are clearly defined in line with international human rights law, so as to ensure it is not used to criminalize the peaceful expression of views,” the statement said.
At least 71 people are known to have been charged for online defamation under the law, according to the 2013 Telecommunications Research Group which is documenting prosecutions under article 66(d), the statement said.
The rights groups also noted that in the past year, the number of criminal prosecutions initiated by private Facebook users against each other for posts they deem untrue, offensive, or insulting, has also risen.
“As long as Section 66(d) remains, people in Myanmar—especially those who criticize officials and government policies online—will be at risk of being imprisoned for their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression,” the statement said.
Myanmar journalists banded together in early June in the commercial capital Yangon to create the Committee for the Protection of Journalists, which is demanding that the government abolish Article 66(d).
They have started collecting signatures of those who support the abolishment of the article and conducted a white armband campaign called “Freedom of the Press” during a court hearing for two domestic journalists accused by the country’s powerful military of defaming it by publishing a satirical article mocking a military film.
Journalists in the town of Lashio in northern Shan state began a campaign against Article 66(d) in June.