Freedom of Expression in Myanmar in Decline Under NLD Government, Say Advocates

By Zaw Zaw Htwe 4 May 2020

YANGON—Freedom of expression has declined in Myanmar under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government as more than a thousand people have been sued for raising criticisms against the government, military, members of Parliament and other individuals, according to Athan, a Myanmar organization advocating for freedom of expression.

In the four years since the NLD came to power, from April 2016 to March 2020, 539 lawsuits have been filed against 1,051 people for allegedly raising criticisms against the state, according to a new report from Athan. The lawsuits were filed by the government, the military, members of Parliament and other individuals and groups.

The founders of Athan told the media during a video press conference on Saturday that the number of lawsuits against people who raise criticisms has increased under the NLD government compared to the previous government.

Athan said they had not yet compiled the number of lawsuits filed under the previous government, as the group is still researching these older cases. However, Maung Saungkha, executive director of Athan, told the media that there were only around half as many of this type of case under the previous government as under the NLD.

The 1,051 people sued since April 2016 include 495 civilians, 326 activists, 67 journalists, 60 politicians, 27 members of the clergy, 24 artists, 17 government staff, 15 ethnic armed group members, 7 businessmen, 7 members of parliament and 6 other people, according to the new Athan report.

Of the 539 lawsuits, the government opened 251 of them, violating the people’s right to freedom of expression, said Athan.

Eight lawsuits that Athan says constituted violations of freedom of expression were also filed by the NLD party itself and government supporters to take action against people who criticized the NLD government.

Government staff, the NLD party and supporters also field 19 lawsuits against people who allegedly raised criticisms against Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, according to Athan.

The other 66 cases were filed against those who criticized the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw.Of the 66 lawsuits, 52 were filed directly by the military against people who raised criticisms both online and offline.

Fourteen members of Parliament also filed 18 lawsuits against 35 civilians for raising criticisms. Thirteen cases were also filed by people associated with members of Parliament to take action against 31 civilians for raising criticisms against the politicians.

Athan said that 67 cases were filed against 67 journalists in an attempt to take action against them for their reporting. Thirty-one of the cases were filed by the government and 11 were filed by the military.

Of the 539 total lawsuits, 229 cases were filed under Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law and 91 cases were filed under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, according to Athan.

Despite the fact that the Telecommunications Law was amended in August 2017 to prohibit third parties from filling cases under the law unless they are effected directly by an action, the number of cases under the law has not decreased, said Athan member Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung.

The rest of the cases were filed under the Anti-Defamation Law, the Unlawful Association Act, the Counterterrorism Law, the Treason Law and others.

Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung told The Irrawaddy on Monday that using the Counterterrorism Law against journalists is one of the worst violations of freedom of expression because the accused faces life in prison.

In March, Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar editor Ko Nay Lin was arrested and charged under the Counterterrorism Law for publishing an interview with the spokesperson of the Arakan Army (AA), which the government recently designated a terrorist group.

The new Athan report said that eight cases against journalists were filed under the Counterterrorism Law.

Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung said that they found there have been more restrictions and bans against events and activities of students and civil society groups related to politics under the NLD government.

“The government can’t deny or neglect human rights and freedom of expression—the fundamental rights of people, if we are to build a federal democratic country,” said Ye Wai Phyo Aung.

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