New Human Rights Report explains how this basic right has declined in the country
Hopes ran high when the National League for Democracy (NLD), which played a major role in the pro-democracy movement in Myanmar, came to power in 2015.
More than three years on, the NLD-led civilian government led has all but shattered such hopes.
In its latest report on free speech, “Dashed Hopes: The Criminalization of Peaceful Expression in Myanmar,” the Human Rights Watch (HRW) outlined the current civic space for journalists and civil society in the country. While laws that criminalize free speech and defamation were enacted by previous administrations in Myanmar, the NLD government whose de facto leader is Aung San Suu Kyi, once known as the country’s icon of democracy, has made no progress in repealing or amending these laws, said the report released on 31 January 2019.
In fact, said HRW, freedoms of expression and of the press have been deteriorating in Myanmar since the installation of its democratically elected government in 2016.
The “overly broad, vague, and abusive laws” of the Unlawful Associations Act and the Official Secrets Act are prone to misuse, the HRW reported. Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which provides a maximum of two years imprisonment for anyone who “defames” a person through a telecommunication network, has created a “wave of criminal prosecutions of individuals for peaceful communications on Facebook and other social media.”
Meanwhile, the News Media Law that provides three government officials with seats in the Myanmar Press Council do not serve and protect the interests of journalists and an independent media. These legislative measures, coupled with Myanmar’s Penal Code, created a “climate of fear” and gave rise to self-censorship, the HRW said.
Today, critical voices in the country are in peril. Criticism of the government and its actors often invites threats, attacks, arrests, and, worse, detention of journalists. Both journalists and civil society groups also face threats and hostility, including from ultranationalist groups.
The Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), a member of SEAPA, knows this full well, having faced intimidation and harassment for allowing for civil society and people’s groups to use its office space to hold press conferences.
As of 30 September 2018, at least 43 journalists have been arrested under the current government, said HRW, citing data from Athan, a local non-government organization campaigning for freedom of expression in Myanmar. (In 2018 the Southeast Asian Press Alliance commissioned Athan to look into the state of freedom of expression in the country. The latter’s report may be viewed here.)
“This is the time to talk about freedom of expression. We expected it to become better, but it’s becoming worse and worse,” HRW quotes Athan founder, activist and poet Maung Saungkha as saying.