The ICJ joined a list of 77 civil society organizations to call on relevant authorities in Myanmar to drop spurious charges against journalist Ko Swe Win, to decriminalize defamation, and to release human rights defenders currently imprisoned under repressive criminal defamation laws.
The statement reads:
On the second anniversary of the defamation charges brought upon Ko Swe Win, editor at online newspaper Myanmar Now, we, the undersigned 77 civil society organisations, call on the relevant authorities to drop the case against him. Spurious defamation charges under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law were filed against him on 7 March 2017 by ultranationalists intent on suppressing free speech. The Government of Myanmar must take concrete steps in parliament to decriminalise defamation, repeal Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law and drop the charges and release all activists and human rights defenders currently in prison and being charged under this repressive legislation.
Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law of 2013 was amended in 2017, but notably, defamation is still criminalised and carries a punishment of up to two years of imprisonment or a fine of up to one million kyat or both. The law is still frequently used to stifle free speech in Myanmar and silence critics. To date, a reported 173 cases have been filed under Article 66(d) since its enactment.
The UN Human Rights Committee has called on all states to decriminalise defamation, indicating that imprisonment for defamation is a penalty that can never be appropriate or compatible with the right to freedom of expression. In addition, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression has stated that defamation should be treated as a matter of civil rather than criminal law, stressing that criminal prosecution for defamation inevitably becomes a mechanism of political censorship, which contradicts freedom of expression and of the press. In the case of Article 66(d), Myanmar law allows for agents of the offended party to file charges for defamation and initiate criminal proceedings on their behalf. In effect, this means that powerful organisations and individuals can operate via proxies to target those that they consider disturbing, a form of judicial harassment with severe implications for the individuals who are accused.
Ko Swe Win was charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for sharing a story by Myanmar Now on Facebook. The story quoted a senior monk who said that well-known ultranationalist monk U Wirathu’s actions could be cause for him to be expelled from the monkhood as they violated the tenets of Buddhism. U Wirathu, notorious for using Facebook to agitate against Muslims, had previously expressed support for and thanked U Kyi Lin – the recently convicted gunman who shot and killed prominent lawyer U Ko Ni in January 2017. U Ko Ni was an expert on constitutional law and was working to change the military-drafted 2008 Constitution. The plaintiff, a follower of U Wirathu, brought the charges in March 2017 and the court proceedings started in July 2017.
Since then, Ko Swe Win has had to travel regularly to the courthouse in Mandalay, where the charge was filed, from his home in Yangon and back – a distance of over 1,200 kilometres. The court hearings, now totaling 55, have been ongoing for almost two years, but the court has still only heard the plaintiff’s side, which has consistently been stalling the process. On some occasions, Ko Swe Win has travelled from Yangon only to find that the plaintiff or witnesses have failed to appear in court and that the proceedings have been postponed. The plaintiff himself was arrested in August 2017 and has since been detained, which has caused significant delays to the process.
U Wirathu has been summoned twice but failed to appear. On the first occasion, his lawyer informed the court that U Wirathu could not make the hearing because he was attending a donation ceremony. On the second occasion, U Wirathu’s lawyer requested that the hearing be held at his monastery compound. That request was denied by the township court, but U Wirathu appealed to the higher district court, which also denied the request. While the district court considered the request, no hearings could be held in the township court. Ko Swe Win however, was still required to make an appearance every two weeks before the township court judge just to be informed of the next date he was due to appear in court. This procedure, which required him to travel from Yangon to Mandalay, was typically over in a matter of minutes.
The many irregularities of this case highlight the lack of independence of the Myanmar judiciary. It appears that the authorities are determined to target those that are working to expose troubling truths and terrible crimes, rather than those who commit them. Those responsible for spreading dangerous speech and inciting violence face no consequences, while those who criticise such dangerous actions continue to be prosecuted. In a recent parallel case, also fraught with controversies, two Reuters reporters – Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo – were convicted to seven years in prison for exposing a mass killing of Rohingya men and boys carried out by the Myanmar military in northern Rakhine State.
In Myanmar, high-ranking military commanders, some of whom are accused by UN investigators for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and even genocide, remain at large, while journalists who expose the truth and report on human rights violations in the country are charged under repressive laws. This inverted idea of justice needs to come to an end if Myanmar is to continue its path towards democracy.
As long as Article 66(d) remains, people in Myanmar, especially those who criticise powerful individuals, officials and government policies online, will be at risk of being imprisoned for their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression.
In light of the above, we call on the Government of Myanmar and its relevant authorities to:
- Drop the defamation charges under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law against Ko Swe Win and other activists and human rights defenders and release those currently imprisoned under this repressive legislation;
- Repeal Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, or at a very minimum, amend it to ensure that:
- defamation is no longer criminalised by deleting references to “defamation” as well as vague language such as “disturbing”;
- only a government prosecutor can file a criminal complaint under Article 66(d);
- where recognisably criminal acts such as “extortion” and “threats” occur in the law they are clearly and narrowly defined in line with international human rights law, to ensure it is not used to criminalise the peaceful expression of views.
Myanmar-statement on defamation-Advocacy-2019-ENG (full statement in English, PDF)
Myanmar-statement on defamation-Advocacy-2019-BUR (full statement in Burmese, PDF)