YANGON - When the National League for Democracy took office in Myanmar in April, many activists, journalists and civil society groups hoped the change to a democratic government would mark a turning point for freedom of expression, following decades of repressive army rule.
Some 10 months later, however, the government of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi has made little progress in strengthening freedom of expression, according to activists, who warn it has failed to prevent a sharp rise in the number of arrests for online defamation.
The government has not shown enough commitment to improve freedom of expression, said Myo Myint Nyein, a magazine editor and former political prisoner who chairs the Myanmar chapter of PEN, an international writers' advocacy group.
The spike in online defamation charges under the 2013 Telecommunications Law has become particularly worrying, he said, adding, "Digital freedom is worse." PEN and other civil society groups are calling on the NLD to urgently change the law.
"The NLD have moved slowly to repeal or amend laws that limit free expression...but should be given credit for repealing a few abusive laws," said David Mathieson, Myanmar researcher for Human Rights Watch.
In 2011, the previous, quasi-civilian government initiated political reforms and began removing junta-era restrictions on freedom of expression, giving rise to a lively media and civil society landscape, and increased public activism.
The government, however, left some repressive laws on the books, while introducing new ones, such as the Telecommunications Law. It regulates the rapidly expanding telecom sector in Myanmar and contains Article 66D, a vaguely worded charge that punishes online defamation with a fine and up to three years in prison.
Myo Myint Nyein said online defamation cases "increased dramatically in 2016," as PEN recorded 38 cases last year, compared to only seven from 2013 to 2015.
Han Gyi, coordinator of the Network for Human Rights Documentation-Burma, which includes eight rights groups, agrees the Telecommunications Law has become a tool of repression and should be reviewed. "Article 66D is the main obstacle for freedom of expression," he said. The NLD has sent mixed signals in response to the calls for reform.
In November, a parliamentary commission recommended removing Article 66D, but Lower House Speaker Win Myint recently declined to criticize the law when questioned by local media.
The NLD government has used Article 66D to sue Eleven Media, a popular Yangon-based newspaper, for online defamation. The paper had insinuated, without evidence, the Yangon Region chief minister received an expensive watch from a wealthy criminal. Eleven Media's chief executive and editor-in-chief have since been jailed.
VOA was unable to reach government officials or NLD MP's for comment.
Army remains powerful
Myo Myint Nyein said authorities have greatly increased use of Article 66D, while ordinary citizens use it against each other.
Many cases involve Facebook users or activists accused of defaming the military. The army remains powerful under Myanmar's constitution and controls the Ministry of Home Affairs and thus the police, which can accept or initiate defamation charges.
Low-level NLD members have also been ensnared. Myo Yan Naung Thein, secretary of the party Central Committee for Research and Strategy Studies, was detained in November for a Facebook post that called the army chief "shameless" for his handling of the Rakhine State crisis in western Myanmar.
Press freedom threatened?
A survey at a Yangon media forum in November, conducted by British-based, free speech advocacy group Article 19, found most Myanmar journalists believe the online defamation charge is a major threat to press freedom.
The survey found journalists also want other laws amended, such as the Penal Code, the 2014 Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law, and the 2014 News Media Law.
Sithu Aung Myint, a well-known columnist with Frontier magazine in Yangon, played down some of the concerns, saying the media are enjoying greater openness.
"I think press freedom in Myanmar is growing and growing under the NLD government," he said, adding Article 66D is not used much against journalists and never by the army.
Coverage on crisis in Rakhine
Also affecting media freedom is the government's response to news coverage of the Rakhine State crisis.
Since October, the army has conducted security sweeps in Rohingya Muslim areas of Rakhine in search of militants, but the operations have been marred by claims and evidence of massive rights abuses, such as rape, killings and destruction of villages.
The government has prevented media from freely reporting in the area and aggressively denounced any reports of abuses, which are mostly brought by foreign media and rights groups.
The government has threatened to sue foreign outlets and in late October a government spokesman publicly assailed a foreign reporter at the Myanmar Times over a rape allegation story. The paper promptly fired the journalist.
Myo Myint Nyein, of PEN, said the government had been wrong to block media access as it had only increased doubts about the situation in Rakhine.
Mathieson, of Human Rights Watch, echoed this view, saying, "It makes the government and military seem more guilty when they treat the media as mushrooms: keeping them in the dark and feeding them on manure."