Defamation suit puts Myanmar telecom law under scrutiny

Calls for reform rise as law meant to open up sector is used to stifle dissent, say critics

Two senior media executives are to be tried in a Yangon court today, in a case that has shone the spotlight on a controversial law used, critics argue, to muzzle dissent.

Eleven Media Group chief executive Than Htut Aung and chief editor Wai Phyo have been sued by the Yangon Region government over an article alleging corruption in the government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which saw a landslide victory a year ago.

The article, published last month in Myanmar's largest daily newspaper, Daily Eleven, was posted on Facebook and carried by the Asian News Network (ANN) website as well as The Straits Times. It did not name anyone, but implied a "newly elected minister" had received an expensive watch as a bribe.

The two men, who were denied bail, have been behind bars since Nov 11, sparking concern among regional media outlets under ANN and press freedom activists.

At the heart of the debate is Myanmar's Telecommunications Law. Enacted in 2013 ostensibly to ease foreign investment, it includes under Section 66 (d) a clause that outlaws "extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person by using any telecommunications network". Offenders face a jail term of up to three years, or a fine, or both.

The broadly worded clause has been repeatedly invoked against people who post online comments deemed insulting to the military, which ruled the country for some 50 years and still wields influence in the NLD-led government that took power early this year.

Last month, senior NLD member Myo Yan Naung Thein was detained and charged under the law for allegedly writing a comment on Facebook calling for Myanmar's commander in chief to resign over his military's crackdown in Rakhine state. In October, troops poured into northern Rakhine following attacks by alleged Muslim militants, displacing thousands and sparking allegations of rape and other abuses.

But members of the NLD have also wielded the telecommunications law against critics. In September, a man from south-eastern Myanmar was jailed for nine months for calling President Htin Kyaw an "idiot" and "crazy" on Facebook. Another individual was arrested last month for making disparaging remarks about Ms Suu Kyi, the country's de facto leader.

Even Eleven Media has sued other parties using the law, although Mr Kyee Myint, a lawyer representing Eleven's two defendants, told The Straits Times it has withdrawn those suits.

Senior NLD official Win Htein told The Straits Times the party did not have any particular policy regarding members' use of the law. "There are some who sue because they cannot take the language (of the alleged offenders)," he said over the telephone. "We didn't tell them to sue."

There is growing momentum to review the telecommunications law. Legal reform activists argue that it has been too prone to abuse, and that parties should rely on laws specific to the media or defamation to pursue their cases.

"No one should be using it," says Mr Thein Than Oo, a founding member of the Myanmar Lawyers' Network. "Instead, we should enact a new cybercrime law that spells out clearly what are offences."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2016, with the headline 'Defamation suit puts Myanmar telecom law under scrutiny'. Print Edition | Subscribe