[Myanmar] Lift internet suspension, uphold free expression, say rights groups

Digital rights activists and organizations, in a joint statement, seek the immediate lifting of all restrictions to internet access in nine townships of Rakhine and Chin states in Myanmar.

The Ministry of Transportation and Communications issued a directive to all mobile phone operators on 20 June 2019 temporarily suspending mobile internet services in the “conflict-ridden” areas in the townships of Ponnagyun, Rathedaung, Mrauk-U, Yauktaw, Minbya, Myebon, Maungdaw, and Buthidaung in northern Rakhine state, and Paletwa Township in southern Chin state.

The internet service suspension, which took effect on 21 June 2019, was ordered “to maintain the stability and law and order in these areas,” said MoTC’s Permanent Secretary U Soe Thein.

Telecommunications company Telenor Group said in a statement that the “shutdown” does not include voice and SMS services but the directive from MoTC “does not specify when the shutdown will end.”

“The decision to shut down internet access in nine townships in Rakhine and Chin States without prior notice or limitation clearly infringes (on) these human rights (freedom of expression and information) and is a matter of great concern to our organizations as it should be to all of the millions of internet users in Myanmar,” the joint statement expressed.

Among the immediate points of action the signatories demanded are:

  • Immediately lift all restrictions on internet access and to restore telecommunication unconditionally to full capacity in the nine townships of Rakhine and Chin States;
  • Review Article 75, 76, 77, and 78 of the 2013 Telecommunications Law and amend them to be in line with human rights standards;
  • Refrain from restricting internet access in future, either in these currently affected areas or elsewhere in Myanmar, including in other conflict areas, and during periods of elections.

International human rights group ARTICLE 19, in their review of the Myanmar Telecommunications Law, said “Article 77 as written should be stricken. The possibility of cutting off Internet access should be prohibited in its entirety. Any restrictions on service in times of emergency should be narrowly defined, subject to prior judicial approval, and be reserved for exceptional circumstances.”

Among the 18 groups that issued the joint statement are Digital Rights Forum Team, Athan, Action Committees for Democratic Development, Association Rights Defenders and Promoters, Myanmar People Alliance, Progressive Voice, and Karen Human Rights Group.

Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) Executive Director Tess Bacalla expressed solidarity with human rights defenders and civil rights activists in calling for the immediate lifting of the restrictions on internet access in the affected areas in Myanmar.

“International human rights standards protecting the people’s right to information and freedom of expression should be upheld at all times,” Bacalla said. “And these include conflict situations when public access to information is direly needed. Being denied access to information leaves people already caught in the throes of conflict in greater danger.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council issued a resolution in June 2016 that “condemns unequivocally measures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online in violation of international human rights law and calls on all States to refrain from and cease such measures.”

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