[Myanmar] Amid narrowing space for free expression, youth group plods on

In less than a year since its founding, Athan gets international recognition for its advocacy

In an era of the deteriorating freedom of expression across Southeast Asia, some of the youth are taking the lead in protecting, nay, fighting for this fundamental right, notwithstanding the challenges – and risks – involved.

Myanmar is no exception. Athan, founded exactly a year ago today, is a group of young Burmese who “respect and value freedom of expression.” The young organization monitors and documents cases of freedom of expression violations, including charges filed against individuals for such infractions.

Athan stands for “voice” in Burmese, echoing the group’s collective aspiration to wrest their country free from the state’s repressive policies restricting press freedom and freedom of expression.

To date, Athan has monitored 28 cases of violations of the right to free expression, and 44 cases of journalists charged under various laws for “simply for doing their job.”

“The main challenge we face during the past year is that the space for engagement with parliament and selected public institutions is getting narrower,” says founder and executive director Maung Saung Kha. “It is very obvious in 2018. It is really difficult lately to have a dialogue with them over freedom of expression and press freedom.”

In December last year, Athan, together with its founder, won the Human Rights Tulip award from the Netherlands for “their work to promote and protect freedom of expression in Myanmar.

Back and front covers of Athan’s midterm report published in October 2018 and supported by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA).

With support from SEAPA, Athan released a mid-term report in October 2018 on free expression in Myanmar. “Athan found that the right to freedom of expression under the first two years of the government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) is worsening despite hopes of (democratic) improvement,” says the report.

Athan engages with relevant public institutions, including administrative, legislative, and judicial branches, to call for amendments to “problematic laws that are obstacles to freedom of expression,” including the Telecommunications Law, Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, Unlawful Association Act, Section 505 of the Penal Code, and the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens.

“We have not seen any media laws being amended or improved during this administration,” says Maung Saung Kha, a poet and writer who was one of the first activists imprisoned under the ruling NLD. He said free expression today in Myanmar is worse off “than it was under the previous administration.”

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