World Asia: South & Central First Look

In fight for freedom of speech, Myanmar journalists urge authorities to ditch oppressive law

Journalists take a stand with planned marches as two journalists face defamation trial.

Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi gives a speech at the opening ceremony of the 21st Century Panglong conference in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, May 24, 2017. Journalists petition the parliament to remove Section 66(d) of Myanmar's Telecommunications Law as several colleagues are indicted by it for their writing.
Soe Zeya/Reuters
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  • Wa Lone
    Reuters

More than 100 reporters in Myanmar are preparing to protest against laws seen as curbing free speech when two senior journalists go on trial on Thursday, after the military sued them for defamation over a satirical article in their journal.

The rare campaign, in which journalists will wear armbands reading "Freedom of the Press," underscores growing public unease at the laws, after the courts recently took up a raft of similar cases.

Despite pressure from human rights bodies and Western diplomats, the government of Aung San Suu Kyi has retained a broadly worded law that prohibits use of the telecoms network to "extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate."

The law was adopted by the semi-civilian administration of former generals led by former president Thein Sein which navigated Myanmar's opening to the outside world from 2011 to 2016.

Arrests of social media users whose posts are deemed distasteful have continued under the administration of Nobel Peace Prize winner Ms. Suu Kyi.

These include the case that sparked the protest, after the chief editor and a columnist of The Voice, one of Myanmar's largest dailies, were arrested for publishing their take on a film on the Army's fight with ethnic rebels.

Myanmar journalists have urged authorities to release the reporters and have set up a Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists.

"The 66 (d) law should be terminated, because the government and the military have used it to cause trouble for the media and the people," said Thar Lon Zaung Htet, a former editor of the domestic Irrawaddy journal who organized the meeting, referring to a controversial clause in the telecoms law.

He said the journalists would gather in front of the court and march to The Voice office wearing the armbands. The panel will also gather signatures for a petition to abolish the law, to be sent to Suu Kyi's office, the army chief and parliament.

Other recent cases include last weekend's arrest of a man publicly accusing an assistant of Yangon's chief minister, Phyo Min Thein, of corruption, and charges against several people over a student play critical of the military.

Phyo Min Thein's assistant has rejected the accusations in a subsequent media interview.

Besides repressive laws, journalists often face threats and intimidation in Myanmar. One recently received threats after speaking out against nationalist Buddhists. In December, a reporter covering illegal logging and crime in the rugged northwest was beaten to death.

"This law is totally against human rights," said Tun Tun Oo, a land rights activists who was charged for live-streaming the student play via his Facebook account. "The government should think about terminating it as it restores democracy and we will fight until the law is abolished."