YANGON—The Myanmar Lower House’s Committee on Justice and Legal Affairs has submitted a draft bill to amend the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens—legislation that rights groups have criticized as a threat to freedom of expression.
The proposed amendments submitted to the Lower House of Parliament on Tuesday include a reduction in the maximum prison term for a defamation conviction under the law to two years, which would make it a bailable offense.
Free speech advocates and rights groups have long called for a review and amendment of the flawed law, which was enacted in March 2017, saying it curbs freedom of expression, rather than provide full protection for citizens’ privacy and security, which was its original aim.
Over the past two years and 11 months, the law has been used to sue more than 110 individuals including activists, media and political party members, mostly by government officials, according to free speech advocacy group Athan. Athan has called for the scrapping of Article 8(f), as it has been widely used to stifle criticism of the state, state leaders and individuals by the authorities.
Article 8(f), the most controversial statute of the law, criminalizes defamation. It states that “No one shall unlawfully interfere with a citizen’s personal or family matters or act in any way to slander or harm their reputation.” Violation of the law is punishable by six months to three years in prison and a fine of between 300,000 and 1.5 million kyats (about US$200 to $1,000) under Article 10 of the law.
NLD Lower House member U Tin Htwe, the chairman of the Justice and Legal Affairs Committee, told reporters after the parliamentary session in Naypyitaw on Tuesday that the law has been exploited to put people behind bars using the non-bailable defamation charge.
Thus, the committee proposed reducing the maximum sentence in order for those accused under the statute to be allowed bail, he said.
According to Myanmar’s criminal procedures, those charged with crimes that can be punished by three or more years in prison do not qualify for bail.
But the draft bill distributed to lawmakers on Tuesday failed to include the recommendations of civil society groups.
Ye Wai Phyo Aung from Athan said that without scrapping the undemocratic criminal defamation provision in Article 8(f) of the law, and greater clarity in defining the term “privacy” under the law, the changes would not produce better results.
“MPs are now more willing to listen to the voices of the public as the election draws nearer. It would be best if they amend the law to bring it in accordance with democratic norms. Otherwise the law will not change radically, even after the amendments are approved,” he said.
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