Total Number of Defamation Cases Under Telecommunications Law Hits 200

By San Yamin Aung 24 June 2019

YANGON—The total number of cases filed under the controversial Telecommunications Law reached 200 this month, according to Athan, a freedom of expression advocacy group. Of these, 27 were filed against perceived critics by officials and 16 cases were filed by the military.

The group said in a report published on Sunday that a total of 200 lawsuits were filed against 246 individuals under the law between late 2013 and June 20, mostly for “online defamation”.

Most of the complainants were government officials, military officers, lawmakers and businessmen, while the cases were mostly opened against journalists, activists and human rights defenders, according to the report.

Parliament passed changes to the heavily criticized Telecommunications Law in August 2017, following months of outcry over the growing number of defamation cases opened under the legislation.

The amendments to the law include banning a third party from filing a case unless that individual has been granted legal power to do so by the “defamed” individual—a move that was considered a way of reducing the number of cases opened under the law.

Two other significant changes under the amendments are allowing bail to be granted to defendants, and a reduction in the maximum prison sentence to two years from three.

Yet, free-speech advocates doubt the effectiveness of the reforms in addressing their concerns, as the most controversial provision of the law, Article 66 (d), which they want repealed, remains in place.

Athan stated in its report that the changes have not stopped military officers from opening cases accusing critics of defaming military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung, research manager at Athan, said nearly a dozen individuals have been sued for allegedly defaming the military chief online over the past year and 10 months.

However, no additional individuals have been prosecuted under the law for defaming State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi since the amendments, he said. Prior to the changes, there were 10 cases in which supporters filed defamation lawsuits on her behalf.

Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung cited the example of a supporter of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi whose attempt to file a defamation lawsuit was rejected by a police station in Yangon’s Hlegu Township because it was not permitted under the changes to the law.

The military-filed defamation lawsuits monitored by Athan had been accepted by the courts despite the fact that the military officers acting as complainants had not been granted the legal power to do so by the army chief. Ko Ye Wai Phyo Aung said this was because the officers had been granted permission by military headquarters in Naypyitaw to do so.

Athan called on leaders, lawmakers and government officials to withdraw their defamation cases, and to implement further amendments to the law, including scrapping its most controversial articles, such as 66(d), 68(a), 77 and 78.