MYANMAR: Online Defamation Cases Are Silencing Critics

MYANMAR: Online Defamation Cases Are Silencing Critics
AP Photo / Aung Shine Oo

What you need to know

Civil society groups are trying to blow the lid off a de-facto censorship law in Myanmar as defamation cases increase under the democratically elected government.

By Mong Palatino & Thant Sin

Several advocacy groups in Myanmar have launched a website containing information about online defamation cases in the past five years, as part of a campaign calling for the repeal of Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law which criminalizes online defamation.

The #SayNOto66d website was initiated and developed by local tech hub Phandeeyar. It was inspired by the work of the Movement for the Telecommunications Law Reform and Art.66D Abolishment, a coalition composed of 22 civil society organizations.

It highlights a study by Free Expression Myanmar which monitored 66(d) cases between 2013 to 2017.

Article 66(d) has been controversial since 2013 because it was used mainly by authorities to intimidate critics and journalists. Its vague wording and harsh penalty have been abused to silence ordinary citizens. Here’s the exact text of Article 66(d):

"Whoever commits any of the following acts shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to a fine or to both. Extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network."

In 2017, the government amended Article 66(d) which allowed respondents to post bail, reduced the prison term, and prohibited the filing of a case if the accuser is not directly involved in a defamation incident.

AP/ 達志影像
Buddhist monks and devotees take pictures with their mobile phones during a meeting at a Buddhist monastery in the suburbs of Yangon, Myanmar, Saturday, June 7, 2014.

But human rights groups insisted that these amendments failed to address concerns over the draconian features of the law.

Free Expression Myanmar warned that the amendments would not stop the rise of defamation cases:

"The small changes made to the Telecommunications Law will not stop cases coming to court. Journalists, Facebook users and human rights defenders continue to face the risk of being prosecuted under 66(d) for vague reasons and at the behest of powerful individuals and institutions."

In order to inform the public about the dangers of Article 66(d), the #SayNOto66d website uploaded all the essential information pertaining to the 106 defamation cases filed between 2013 to 2017.

It summarized the findings of Free Expression Myanmar:

  1. The majority of cases under 66(d) are powerful people complaining about those who criticize them.
  2. Defendants are always convicted and sentences are disproportionately harsh.
  3. People with legitimate complaints, such as women who are facing gender-based violence online, are forced to use this inappropriate law because no other exists.

This disappointed many activists in and outside of Myanmar because the National League for Democracy (NLD) was part of the pro-democracy movement which challenged the junta for many years. Instead of reversing or repealing repressive laws by the junta, the NLD-led government has allowed military officials, politicians, and other powerful individuals to use laws like 66(d) to harass and prosecute their critics.

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