YANGON - Amid mounting pressure from diplomats and the media, Myanmar’s parliament is soon expected to amend a heavily criticized law that has been used to restrict freedom of expression online.
But while advocates cautiously welcome the changes, many say the proposed reforms fall short of substantive reform and don’t root out the law’s core problems.
Dubbed a candidate for one of the world's worst media laws by the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, Article 66d is part of the 2013 Telecommunications Act passed under the previous military-backed administration of President Thein Sein.
Threatens freedom of expression
Crafted as once-isolated Myanmar started to allow companies to offer widespread and affordable Internet access, 66d provides for a maximum prison sentence of up to three years for anyone convicted of “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network.”
It was barely used under Thein Sein, but research shows that, ironically, cases have skyrocketed from 7 to more than 60 since Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi came to power more than a year ago, with additional complaints pending approval for prosecution. Writers, journalists and ordinary citizens have found themselves in court or in jail after criticizing or publishing criticism of the government and the military online.
Following months of outcry over the growing number of cases, Myanmar's Ministry of Transportation and Communication forwarded draft amendments to lawmakers earlier this month. The amendments include allowing bail for suspects, preventing third parties from filing cases, and removing the phrases “coercing, restraining wrongfully” and “causing undue influence” from the text. But so far they do not intend to get rid of the key “defaming” part of the clause and have kept the same criminal penalties.
Criticism of proposed amendments
“My opinion is it’s not enough,” said Myint Kyaw, a member of Myanmar’s Press Council. “Because they still have a very wide range of words still in the law, and then the other point is that ‘defamation’ is also not clearly explained in the law and then there is no bylaw as well.”
He added that because of the lack of specificity, a comment or a post online can lead to trouble.
He hopes that advocacy can still be carried out at the parliamentary level while the amendments are debated, but he has doubts that it will be effective because the National League for Democracy-led legislature is very centralized.
An analysis of the revised legislation from the Coalition on the Movement for Telecommunications Law Reform and 66d Abolishment – an umbrella organization comprised of 22 groups from civil society and the media – points out it removes a safeguard that required approval from the Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications before a case could proceed.
The coalition recommended against passing the amendments.
The debate continues
The problems with 66d also speak to broader shortcomings of the Telecommunications Act itself, such as Internet privacy and obstacles to tech development, especially with user-generated content on local platforms and forums.
“So let’s say people are putting up content there and then what if the government not only presses charges against the perpetrator, what if they press charges against these kinds of innovations or these kinds of platforms as well,” said Htaike Htaike Aung, executive director of the Myanmar ICT For Development Organization, or MIDO. “So that will kind of hinder people developing local platforms for content.”
The proposed revisions do, however, represent a modicum of progress for the anti-66d campaigners.
“We have consistently expressed concerns about how 66d is impinging on freedom of expression and so welcome the very active debate and movement to amend the law, which we regard as a step in the right direction,” the U.S. embassy in Myanmar said in a statement.
The Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications could not be reached for comment.