Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Demonstrators take aim at section 66(d)

Activists, lawyers and journalists gathered in Mahabandoola Park yesterday in a demonstration of solidarity against Myanmar’s notorious defamation laws.

Members of the Committee for Amending the Telecommunications Law attend a rally yesterday wearing white and red campaign t-shirts. Photos: Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar TimesMembers of the Committee for Amending the Telecommunications Law attend a rally yesterday wearing white and red campaign t-shirts. Photos: Aung Myin Ye Zaw / The Myanmar Times

Several activists who served time under the Telecommunications Law’s section 66(d) have joined the campaign to overturn the clause.

Maung Saung Kha, a poet who was imprisoned over a Facebook post and one of the driving forces to appeal the legislation, told the assembled crowd yesterday that a proposal to parliament is on the horizon.

The Committee for Amending the Telecommunications Law plans to submit the proposal by the end of this month, said Ko Maung Saung Kha. The proposal contains research about 66(d) compiled by lawyers and IT experts, as well as first-hand accounts by former inmates prosecuted under the defamation clause, he said.

“The report presents suggestions to our parliament regarding amending section 66(d), including recommendations for reforming the law,” he said at yesterday’s rally.  

U Zayar Hlaing, from the Myanmar Journalism Network said yesterday that 48 defamation cases have been filed under section 66(d), the vast majority of which have been brought during the National League for Democracy-led government’s administration.

“This article intends to shut the mouths of the public. It looks bad that the elected government is still using this article,” he said in a speech at the park yesterday.

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

The Telecommunications Law was adopted in 2013 with the aim of improving the climate for foreign investors. But 66(d) has mainly been wielded to crack down on opinions expressed via social media that meet with official disapproval.

Political activists and journalists haven’t been the only targets. Celebrities too have now found themselves slapped with defamation charges, and jailed. Last week, transgender model Ma Myo Ko Ko San was the latest victim of a defamation lawsuit, though she was released after police said the charge, brought by a fellow model, could not be substantiated.

According to lawyers, the legislation is vaguely worded, if narrowly enforced. Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law says anyone “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network” faces prosecution and a possible prison sentence of up to three years, plus a fine. The measure appears to contradict section 354 of the constitution, which protects free expression unless it is found to undermine “law and order, community peace and tranquility or public order and morality”.

“Overturning 66(d) is very important because the clause is not in line with international standards or human rights. Mostly, the section has been used to enact revenge,” said U Robert San Aung, a prominent lawyer who has defended several people slapped with 66(d) charges. He also pointed out that the Telecommunications Law is being put into practice even though the relevant rules underpinning the enforcement have not been produced yet.  

Ma Htaike Htaike Aung, a program director at Myanmar ICT for Development, illustrated to demonstrators in the park yesterday just how problematically widespread defamation causes under the law could become.

“Do you have a Facebook account?” she said. “Have you ever posted criticism about something or someone? Then you are qualified to be sued any time under section 66(d).”