YANGON—Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has instructed officials not to pursue legal action against a number of people who spread misinformation about her on Facebook. The social media rumormongers, whose lies included that the State Counselor had been diagnosed with COVID-19, and that she had been replaced in her position due to her supposed illness, were identified during an official investigation.
During a tele-press conference on Saturday, Myanmar President’s Office spokesperson U Zaw Htay shared with reporters details of at least 20 Facebook accounts and pages that posted fake news about the State Counselor. They included accounts created by a retired army major-cum-former ambassador, as well as nationalists and supporters of the country’s main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party, among others.
Since the coronavirus pandemic reached Myanmar, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader and chair of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), has been preyed upon by spreaders of misinformation, especially on Facebook, the country’s most popular social media platform. The President’s Office vowed to investigate and punish those behind the fake news.
U Zaw Htay told reporters on Saturday that when officials at the President’s Office asked her for guidance on how to proceed with the information they had discovered, the State Counselor replied, “Leave them alone.”
“She said to just publicly share their account names and what they had posted,” he said. “‘It’s OK,’” the spokesperson quoted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi as saying.
In line with her instructions, U Zaw Htay said, the government would not take action against those behind the posts but would share their information on the Ministry of Information’s Facebook page.
“Actually, [their actions] are against the law and punishable,” he said, adding that an increase in such fake news reports was typical with an election just around the corner.
Myanmar will go to the polls in November. Observers expect Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD will win another term due to her continued popularity.
On Monday, Facebook told The Irrawaddy that it removes posts that claim Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has COVID-19 as per its “time-bound, Myanmar-election-specific civic misinformation policy.”
“Furthermore, the claims have also been fact-checked by two of our third-party fact-checkers in Myanmar (BOOM and Fact Crescendo),” a Facebook company spokesperson wrote in an email.
One of Myanmar’s most prominent human rights lawyers, U Thein Than Oo, said those who spread fake news could at least be charged under Article 505 of the country’s Penal Code for circulating rumors—an offense that carries a two-year prison sentence.
“If you want more, you could charge [them] under 124(a): exciting disaffection towards the government. The punishment is 20 years’ imprisonment,” he explained.
On Saturday, U Zaw Htay warned against spreading fake news about the government’s COVID-19 response, saying some political parties’ leaders had done so.
The spokesperson didn’t mention any names, but Nay Zin Latt of the National Development Party recently attracted public ire for making alarming statements during the second wave of the virus outbreak. Early this month, as the daily coronavirus death toll was rising, the former military officer cum adviser to former President U Thein Sein posted on his Facebook page pictures of men lying in the street with comments implying they died of COVID-19. The pictures turned out to have nothing to do with the virus; one was of men lying unconscious after a road accident, and the other was of a man who died after drinking too much.
“I want to remind them not to disturb the public tranquility or anything medics and volunteers are doing on the front line. It is a punishable offense,” U Zaw Htay said.
The Ministry of Health has warned that people who spread fake news about COVID-19 could be charged under existing laws.
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