Myanmar Mulls Change to Defamation Law

By Reuters 6 July 2017

NAYPYITAW — Myanmar is considering amendments to a law that human rights monitors say violates free speech and has been used to jail journalists and activists, leader Aung San Suu Kyi said on Thursday.

Following a recent spate of arrests of reporters, the United States and the European Union have raised concern that despite Myanmar electing its first civilian government in about half a century, its media face increasing curbs.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) has a majority in parliament—and many of its lawmakers are former political prisoners—but the party has not until now prioritised repealing laws that previous governments used to quash dissent.

“About 66(d), the legislature is considering amendments to that particular law,” Suu Kyi told a news conference, referring to a broadly worded clause of the Telecommunications Law that prohibits use of the telecoms network to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate.”

Suu Kyi did not say what changes were planned, but Myanmar officials have indicated that the law may be changed to enable judges to release on bail those charged under the law, diplomats have told Reuters.

Some Senior NLD members oppose changes to the law, which they defend as a tool for curbing hate speech and false news as internet access expands in Myanmar.

Suu Kyi’s defenders say the Nobel Peace Prize winner—who spent years under house arrest for opposing army rule—is hamstrung by a military-drafted constitution that keeps the generals in politics and free from civilian oversight.

Last month, three journalists covering an event organised by an ethnic minority rebel group, that authorities have designated an “illegal organization,” were detained by the military and later arrested on suspicion of breaching a colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act.

A newspaper editor is also on trial under the telecoms law over a satirical article making fun of the military.

The cases have sparked outrage among the boisterous media community that has emerged in the commercial hub Yangon since the government lifted pre-publication censorship in 2012.

They have also prompted statements of concern from both the European Union and the United States.

When asked about the case of the three arrested reporters, Suu Kyi said it was “not for us to comment on … how the various cases should be tried in the court—that’s for the justice sector to take care of.”

“This should not be seen very narrowly as three journalists against the army or vice versa, but in general, as to whether the existing laws are in line with our desire for justice and democratization,” she said, without elaborating on her position.

The three journalists are due to appear in court in Shan State in the north of Myanmar on July 11. They face up to three years in prison.