(Bangkok) – Myanmar’s government should immediately drop all criminal charges against three street artists arrested for painting a mural that raises awareness about the coronavirus pandemic, Human Rights Watch said today. The artists, Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai, and Naw Htun Aung, were charged on April 3, 2020 for violating Myanmar’s law criminalizing speech that “insults” religion.
The three were arrested after Buddhist hardliners complained that the mural, portraying a grim reaper figure spreading the COVID-19 virus, looked like a Buddhist monk. It was painted on a wall in Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. The artists posted a photo of their completed mural on social media the first week of April but painted over it after they were bombarded by hate speech online.
“Myanmar’s authorities caved to outrageous demands by Buddhist ultranationalists to prosecute three street artists for expressing their views,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “At a time when the Myanmar government needs to be doing more to educate the populace about the coronavirus crisis, arresting those bringing attention to the issue is all the more ridiculous. The charges should immediately be dropped.”
The deputy director of Kachin State’s Religious Office formally filed the charges under article 295A of the Penal Code, which criminalizes speech that “with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging religious feelings … insults or attempts to insult” religion or religious beliefs. The three face up to two years in prison.
Article 295A effectively criminalizes speech that may offend others or be viewed as insulting to their religion. The United Nations special rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression has specifically cited laws that prohibit “outraging religious feelings” as an example of overly broad laws that can be abused to censor discussion on matters of legitimate public interest. A prohibition on speech that wounds someone’s religious feelings or is perceived as insulting someone’s religion, reinforced by criminal penalties, is neither necessary to protect a legitimate interest nor is it proportionate to the supposed interest being protected, Human Rights Watch said.
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the authorities should ensure that everyone has access to information. In recent weeks, however, the Myanmar government has expanded its crackdown on freedom of expression by prosecuting journalists, including several editors. In March, the authorities demanded that telecommunications providers arbitrarily block 221 websites deemed to be spreading “fake news” related to COVID-19 or containing explicit content, according to the Norwegian telecommunications provider Telenor.
Internet service providers should fully resist unjustified internet shutdowns or takedowns, including by seeking a legal basis for any shutdown order and interpreting requests to cause the least intrusive restrictions. They should carry out their responsibilities under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and avoid complicity in human rights abuses, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Myanmar’s poor health care infrastructure is ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak of COVID-19. There are serious concerns about risks for highly vulnerable populations such as prisoners and internally displaced people, whose limited access to sanitation and health care and whose overcrowded living conditions make displaced person camps into potential tinderboxes for infection. The Myanmar government should immediately move to provide quality information about COVID-19 and how it spreads and encourage community participation to ensure that information is widely available and easy to access in various formats, languages, and locations.
“The Myanmar government has tried to wish away the onset of the virus by further clamping down on the media and the internet,” Robertson said. “Now it’s punishing street artists spreading awareness of the disease among the vulnerable populations in the country’s far north.”