In October 2018, Athan released a mid-term report on freedom of expression under the new government in co-operation with the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. The report documents incidents of violations of the freedom of expression, freedom of press and the right to peaceful assembly supported by individual case studies. It is based on findings from original research as well as statistics compiled by Athan.
Freedom of Expression
The report finds that the contagious and excessive use of article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law started in the run-up to the 2015 elections. The law was then increasingly used to prosecute criticism and expression on social media. In 2017, following a push by civil society organisations, legal experts and activists, parliament amended the law. The amendment reduced the number of grounds to file a complaint, reduced the maxium prison term and banned third party plaintiffs from filing. However, the amendment remained superficial and fell short of CSO recommendations.
At the time of the report, Athan was aware of 150 cases filed under the Telecommunications Law. Eleven of those complaints were lodged under the previous government. However, the number increased under the subsequent, NLD-led government. Interestingly, NLD-led government saw the filing of 91 cases before and 48 cases after the amendment.
Athan analysed the cases’ contents in order to see if the Telecommunications Law impeded free expression and found that 54% of cases pertained to freedom of expression issues while around 50% of the cases were filed in Yangon Region.
Further potential obstructions of free expression
Beyond the Telecommunications Law, the report also covers other controversial laws and events such as:
- the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, passed March 8th 2017;
- prior scrutiny of songs played during Thingyan celebrations in Yangon;
- social media monitoring by the government;
- a student charged for allegedly organizing an education dialogue;
- young Karenni charged for their protest against the erection of a statue of General Aung San in 2018;
- bans and lawsuits against several assemblies including interfaith prayer assemblies and poetry recitals;
- the charges of Dr. Aye Maung and Way Hin Aung with state defamation and high treason;
- the charges following the offensive criticism of State Councilor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi by a pro-military former columnist;
- a complaint filed against an activist for defamation after criticising their verdict;
- and human rights lawyer Dr. Khin Khin Kyaw, who defended students who had been protesting for educational reform, and Ko Than Htike charged themselves after they had publicly protested a procedural decision of the court.
Athan found that there had been 44 journalists who faced trials and 28 complaints against the journalists under the then current government. Of all the complaints, government officials lodged seventeen, the Military lodged three and various other individuals lodged eight.
Article 66(d) not only features in the section on freedom of expression but also in the section on press freedom. Most cases against journalists had been filed under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law. Other cases featured the Unlawful Association Law, the Burma Official Secrets Act, Section 500 and 505(b) of the Penal Code, the News Media Law, the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens, the Myanmar Aircraft Act, the Export and Import Law and the Immigration Act.
For instance, charges documented in the report include the cases of Ko Swe Win, the incumbent editor-in-chief of Myanmar Now Media, which required the defendant, a Yangon resident, to attend court hearings in Mandalay regularly; the case of Eleven Media vs Yangon Region’s chief minister. Additional cases included:
- a columnist in Thanintharyi region charged by the regional government for a satire piece
- a journalist charged, eventually under article 68(a) of the Telecommunications Law. A third party had published a video report of his on Facebook against his and his employers’ expressed instructions;
- a journalists’ network pressured to move offices;
- a regional reporter in Mandalay region threatened after reporting on wood cutting factories in the region;
- two cases of journalists fired for their writing;
- MNTV ceasing to broadcast the BBC’s Burmese programme because it used terms banned by Myanmar’s government and lastly
- the case of two Reuters journalists arrested under the Official Secrets Act.
The full report is available as a download below.