Contentious Telecoms Law Still Used to Stifle Dissent Despite Amendments: FEM

By Zue Zue 12 December 2017

YANGON — The controversial Article 66(d) of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law is still widely used by authorities to stifle dissent despite a recent amendment, according to a report by Free Expression Myanmar (FEM), a non-governmental human rights defender and promoter.

FEM released its report titled ‘66 (d): No real change’ at Pansuriya Art Gallery in Yangon on Monday, claiming that the government’s amendment of the article in August 2017 has not brought any significant change.

“This article should have been scrapped, but it was only amended. This report highlights with facts and figures that this article is still used [by authorities] as a tool even after its amendment, as well as looks at the situation of freedom of expression in Myanmar,” Maung Saungkha, a poet who has been campaigning for the repeal of the law, told The Irrawaddy.

Over the past two years, Article 66(d) has been used by those in positions of power to punish those who try to hold them accountable, and the government amendment of the article has had no perceptible impact on this, said FEM.

The report was prepared by FEM and its partners Myanmar ICT for Development (MIDO) and a research group on Telecommunications Law. It analyzes the complaints filed under Article 66(d) before and after amending the article.

“We’ve said clearly that Article 66(d) is unnecessary because there is already Section 500 of the Penal Code. The defamation charge in the telecommunications is too broadly defined. Unless and until Article 66(d) is scrapped, any changes to the law will not suffice,” said Maung Saungkha.

Nine new cases were filed under Article 66(d) even after changes were introduced to the law August, according to the report, which covers two years’ time from November 2015 to November 2017.

According to the report, there were a total of 106 cases—11 filed in the time of the Union Solidarity and Development (USDP) government and 95 under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government.

The report said that 51 percent of complainants were closely related to authorities such as government officials, political parties and the military, and 23 percent of complainants directly represent the government as government officials, including ward administrators and police officers.

“Article 66(d) was not amended as we wanted, in a way that complies with international norms. I would call it a so-called amendment,” said Daw Zarchi Oo, a member of Pen Myanmar.

In early 2017, 22 civil society organizations teamed up in their advocacy efforts for the reform of the Telecommunications Law and the termination of Article 66(d).

The amendment approved by Parliament in August requires prosecutions under the law to be conducted directly by the “defamed” individual, rather than by a third party, unless that party has been granted legal power by the individual. It also allows for bail to be granted to the defendant.

The maximum prison sentence was also cut to two years from three. However, the law’s most contentious clause, which broadly prohibits the use of the telecommunications network to “extort, defame, disturb or intimidate” remains in place.

The FEM Myanmar report said that 93 percent of complaints were about defamation, and if defamation were precisely defined in Article 66(d), at least two-thirds of the complaints should have been rejected.

The report also called for scrapping the article and decriminalizing defamation in Myanmar’s Penal Code.

FEM was established in May 2017 by a group of human rights defenders leading a new civil society coalition to challenge the repressive Telecommunications Law and the notorious Article 66(d).

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.