Why you should care
Because an online defamation law may be silencing free speech — or minimizing the ill effects of social media.
Despite the threat of jail in February of this year, Ko Swe Win, editor-in-chief of the nonprofit news site Myanmar Now, refused to apologize. The year before he had shared a critical story on Facebook about ultranationalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, known to stoke tensions against Myanmar’s Muslim community. “I learnt that Wirathu has committed a cardinal sin and his monkhood is over,” wrote Swe Win, sharing a story about Wirathu commending the assassination of a Muslim lawyer.
One of Wirathu’s followers soon filed a criminal complaint of defamation against Swe Win. The plaintiff said he would retract the suit, allowing Swe Win to avoid jail, if the editor apologized. Swe Win is far from the only one to face defamation charges in recent years. And he still didn’t apologize. Swe Win was arrested, has appeared in court dozens of times to date and faces two years in prison if convicted.
As the recently connected country hashes out issues of free press, fake news and digital privacy, critics of a criminal defamation law say it’s being used to silence legitimate and important speech. It’s been a powerful tool, even as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) partially replaced the ruling junta, leaving some hopeful for greater speech freedoms.
Between November 2015 and March of this year, at least 118 people were charged with violating the country’s Telecommunications Law for speech online, including at least 13 journalists and 19 human rights activists.
In the past decade, Myanmar has seen an explosion in digital connectivity. Before, when the telecommunications market was heavily regulated, access to a SIM card could cost hundreds of dollars. As recently as 2010, internet penetration in Myanmar was less than 0.3 percent, according to the World Bank. Only North Korea had it worse. But as the government slashed the price of SIM cards, the nation sprinted online to catch up to their neighbors. By 2017, some 17 million were online — 26 percent of the population — and roughly 16 million now use Facebook.
“Facebook is basically the internet in Myanmar,” says Yangon-based digital rights activist Ei Myat Noe Khin. It’s by far the most popular site in the country to post ideas and share news, helped by data plans that allow cheap or free access to the site while charging data rates for other internet use. But alongside access came trouble.
The platform has also been used to stoke tensions against ethnic Muslim Rohingya. Fake reports of atrocities committed by Muslims — spread with help from the Myanmar military, according to the United Nations — allowed a supportive environment last year for the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya in what the U.N. called a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Facebook struggled to find people capable of combing Myanmar Facebook comments for incendiary speech due to language barriers and a deficit of those with the necessary cultural knowledge. Myanmar had just become connected, and the world was horrified by the result.
Defendants are convicted 100 percent of the time when they go to trial, according to the report, and always given jail time instead of a fine.
There are those who have been reporting dangerous speech on Facebook — but it’s not always dangerous to the general population, according to free speech advocacy group Free Expression Myanmar. Its report “No Real Change” discusses the country’s internet-governing 2013 Telecommunications Law, Section 66(d), which makes extorting, defaming, disturbing and threatening a criminal offense. The group says that just over half of the 118 cases brought since 2015 are from those either closely related to the state, military or religious affiliate. But defendants are convicted 100 percent of the time when they go to trial, according to the report, and always given jail time instead of a fine. And 90 percent of 66(d) cases took place under the NLD government.
There was a village head in 2016 who filed a complaint against a journalist who posted a video of interviews discussing local corruption. In 2017, a colonel sued a human rights activist who posted a video of a street theater performance titled “No More War.” And in 2016, an NLD party member filed a complaint against a Union Solidarity and Development Party member for criticizing Suu Kyi.
“In terms of freedom of expression, it is really shrinking,” says activist Noe Khin. Alongside the relatively quiet purging of those posting critically on Facebook was the high-profile jailing of two Reuters journalists covering the Rohingya crisis for supposedly illegal possession of official documents. Free Expression Myanmar wants the 66(d) repealed. So does Noe Khin, though she doesn’t think change is likely. “I try to be optimistic, but I don’t think it’s something that is possible right now,” she says. Who knows? In Myanmar, things change fast.