Thursday, August 17, 2017

Speaker not speaking out on telecoms law defamation

Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker U Win Myint has declined to wade into the debate over the Telecommunications Law’s controversial defamation clause, saying he would not comment on whether the provision should be amended.

Speaker U Win Myint (left) speaks to the press yesterday. Photo: Pyae Thet Phyo / The Myanmar TimesSpeaker U Win Myint (left) speaks to the press yesterday. Photo: Pyae Thet Phyo / The Myanmar Times

Speaking to reporters at a press conference in parliament’s Zabuthiri Hall following yesterday’s hluttaw session, the Speaker said he would defer to the preference of the majority among his colleagues in the legislature.

“I will not express my opinion,” he said, while noting that the matter had not been taken up formally by any MPs through the submission of a question, proposal or draft amendment bill.

“If there were any question or proposal, the representatives would decide on it,” he added.

But the Speaker defended the preceding, Union Solidarity and Development Party-dominated parliament’s decision to pass the Telecommunications Law in 2013, and even appeared to speak in defence of the defamation clause.

“It was necessary to promulgate it originally. That kind of law is promulgated in every country. There is no country where that kind of law is not promulgated. When diplomats, international guests discuss that law with me, I respond as I have just now,” he said, before turning to the controversial provision in question, section 66(d).

U Win Myint said freedom of speech was only protected when statements are true and backed up by solid evidence. An individual’s right to free speech is accompanied by a personal responsibility for that speech, he said.

The Speaker also said it was not for him to comment on whether denying bail should not be an option in 66(d) cases.

Proponents of reforming section 66(d) have argued that bail should granted automatically in defamation cases, given that they do not involve violent criminality or other serious charges.

“Whether to grant bail or not is according to the judge’s reasoning. I will not give remarks on whether it is fair or not ... that is the judge’s responsibility,” U Win Myint said.

Section 66(d), the newest threat to freedom of expression?

Last week, the chair of the parliamentary Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues, Thura U Shwe Mann, came out more strongly in favour of amending section 66(d).

At a rule of law meeting on December 14 at Mandalay’s City Hall, the former MP and U Win Myint’s predecessor as lower house Speaker said section 66(d) “must be abolished”.

In the event that lawmakers do not agree with him, however, Thura U Shwe Mann said the maximum sentence for violators of section 66(d) should be reduced from three years in prison to two, and denial of bail requests should be prohibited in these cases.

“If we do like this, our commission has decided that there will be no more contention and we have reported about it to the Union government,” Thura U Shwe Mann said at the meeting, which was attended by legal professionals, civil society groups, police and General Administration Department personnel.

Commission discussions about the legislation had focused on what was in the best interests of the country and its people, not any individual in particular, he added.

Lawyer U Zaw Win was even less sparing of section 66(d), saying it is being wielded politically.

“This 66[d] is not for amending but for abolishing. It is not a useful clause. It was prescribed for certain leaders to be able to use as a weapon so criticism of them is not allowed. Every leader must have resilience to criticism if they become a leader,” he told The Myanmar Times, noting that the penal code’s section 500 already covers defamation in a broad sense.

Translation by San Layy, Emoon and Win Thaw Tar