Thein Zaw Zaw, a lawyer and a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), noticed last year a worrisome trend in his neighborhood in Yangon. Several public spaces, used by the community as playgrounds, libraries or dispensaries, were being fenced up and sold for private use, according to him.
Without knowing what else to do, he decided to complain using social media.
“I criticized it online, and some friends brought the case to the national Parliament, where it was decided that the land should be kept as a public area.
But then I was sued,” Thein Zaw Zaw says.
Local officials accused the lawyer and three other people of defamation, but he says that he was just expressing his opinion.
“I pointed out that the community would not accept it [the sale of public spaces],” he says.
After spending three months in jail, the lawyer was granted freedom on bail, and is currently awaiting trial.
Despite gathering support from the local community, Zaw Zaw says that his political party turned its back on him during the legal proceedings. “The NLD didn’t support me,” he says.
The sweeping 2015 electoral victory of the NLD, led by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, brought renewed hopes of a strengthening of civil liberties in the country. But, as a new generation of Burmese embraces the internet, the NLD-led government and influential actors have kept using a vague piece of legislation to curtail free speech and online criticism.
According to a recent report by Free Expression Myanmar, since the current government took office there have been at least 95 criminal complaints made under the Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, most of them related to defamation online.
More than half of the cases involved “powerful people trying to censor or punish weak people for criticism or allegations,” says the study.
Moreover, all of the cases judged ended up with a guilty verdict, and a majority of the defendants targeted were journalists, activists, artists or members of political parties.
Up to 61 non-profit organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, described the anti-defamation provision in a joint statement as a risk for “freedom of expression,” and called for its repeal last June.
“It has become a tool of repression,” says Thi Ha Saw, the secretary of the Myanmar Press Council, a self-regulatory body for the media industry.
According to him, the NLD hasn’t really promoted “any change” regarding freedom of expression in Myanmar, and both the powerful military of the country and the government are using the anti-defamation provision to counter any kind of backlash on the internet.
Calls to the legal division of the Ministry of Transport and Communication went unanswered.
The strengthened control of messages online comes as the number of netizens in the country has dramatically increased in recent years, thanks to lower fees from internet companies, and a massive growth in the use of mobile phones.
According to a recent study by Hootsuite, Myanmar had 14 million internet users in January 2017, an annual increase of 97% over the previous year.
Lack of clarity
In a recent case, the editor of Myanmar Now news agency, Swe Win, was charged with insulting a Buddhist monk who praised the killer of a Muslim government lawyer.
Similarly, in a still ongoing procedure, the village head of Lepadanmade filed a complaint against a DVB reporter and a villager who posted online an interview about local corruption, the report by Free Expression Myanmar says.
As the legal provision does not specify what constitutes ‘defamation,’ the researchers found that up to two-thirds of cases involved posts that were actually individual opinions, rather than factual accusations against other individuals.
“A distinction should be made between people asserting a fact and speaking an opinion. Sharing your opinion shouldn’t lead to a defamation case,” said Maung Saung Kha, the programme officer researcher of the organization, during the launch of the report last week in Yangon.
An amendment to the controversial law passed last August failed to offer a clear definition of ‘defamation,’ and critics argued that it fell short in solving the problem.
The National League for Democracy says that “freedom of expression” is protected in the country, and has refused to repeal the article in the past.
The spokesperson of the NLD, Nyan Win, says that citizens of the country enjoy “free speech rights,” but that “restrictions are needed” due to the lack of a “fully democratic government” in Myanmar.
Furthermore, he says that the law is needed to “protect ordinary people from defamation coming from other persons.”
Despite promises of change, journalists based in Myanmar have faced all kinds of constrictions when reporting about the country. Thi Ha Saw, from the Myanmar Press Council, argues that the anti-defamation article is just one of several legal tools used to restrict journalists’ work.
Myanmar was ranked 131st out of 180 countries in the 2017 Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters without Borders, and the organization has denounced the detentions of several journalists while doing their work.
The organization has criticized “self-censorship” related to government officials and military personnel, and said that authorities “continue to exert pressure on the media.”
In October, Malaysian producer Mok Choy Lin and a Singaporean cameraperson were detained while shooting the parliament building of the country, despite having all the right permits, the organization reported, quoting the Turkish broadcaster they were working for, TRT.
Similarly, two reporters from Mizzima were arrested and later granted bail last August, after posting on Facebook a report about a case of money-lending at high rates to pay for school fees.
Mizzima reporter Daung Lu said: “I filmed this news and reported balanced views in my news coverage. My opinion was not included in this news report. The press conference was held and the reporters went there and covered news following media ethics. I don’t understand why it was registered under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.”
In the case of the lawyer Thein Zaw Zaw, he says that after spending three months in jail, he feels confident about the future. “People on the other side are trying to make an example, to show that if you post criticism online, you’ll end up like this, but people that supported me were really grateful, as the playgrounds were returned to the public,” he says.
Additional reporting by AFP