(Rangoon) – Burmese authorities continue to arrest and charge individuals, including members of the ruling party, for criticizing the military and government, Human Rights Watch said today.

On November 18, 2016, National League for Democracy (NLD) member Myo Yan Naung Thein was charged with defamation for a Facebook post criticizing the military for “failing to defend the country” against attacks in Rakhine State and calling for the commander-in-chief of the armed forces to resign. He is being held without bail, and faces up to three years in prison under Burma’s Telecommunications Law.

“No one seems safe from prosecution under Burma’s overly broad laws criminalizing free speech,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “It’s crucial that the NLD, many of whose members spent long years in prison for their political views, act to end these prosecutions and amend the law.”

Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law is a vaguely worded provision that criminalizes “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person by using any telecommunications network.” A member of parliament who serves on the Parliamentary Commission for the Assessment of Legal Affairs and Special Issues recently announced that the commission was preparing to review the law in light of criticism of its continued use.

No one seems safe from prosecution under Burma’s overly broad laws criminalizing free speech.

Phil Robertson

Deputy Asia Director

In recent months, the authorities have used section 66(d) to arrest individuals who allegedly insulted or defamed NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi, President U Htin Kyaw, or the military. In September, Aung Win Hlaing was sentenced to nine months in prison for calling the president an “idiot” and “crazy” on Facebook. On November 11, Ko Hla Phone was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly posting digitally altered images of former president Thein Sein and Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing on social media. Section 66(d) is also now being used to prosecute the chief executive officer and chief editor of Eleven Media, Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo, for an article that suggested that Rangoon Region Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein had accepted an expensive watch from a prominent businessman.

Human Rights Watch takes the position that defamation – a false statement of fact that harms someone’s reputation – should not be a criminal offense, as criminal penalties are always a disproportionate punishment for harm to someone’s reputation. Defamation cases involving public figures are particularly problematic, allowing those in power to penalize their critics or those who seek to expose official wrongdoing. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has made clear that speech that is considered insulting, even speech that insults those in a position of power, should never be the basis of a criminal prosecution.

“Exposure of corruption and criticism of the government, however crudely worded, are essential elements of a rights-respecting democracy, and should not be the basis of criminal prosecutions,” Robertson said. “The Burmese parliament should move quickly to amend section 66(d) to bring it in line with international standards for the protection of free expression.”