As Myanmar approaches its next general election, freedom of expression remains highly restricted, ARTICLE 19 said in a briefing paper published today. Myanmar should immediately cease the prosecution of those exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and work to implement structural reforms to its legal framework, including its election laws.
“The Myanmar government’s rhetorical commitment to fair elections and democracy will ring hollow so long as it continues to silence critics and stifle independent media,” said Matthew Bugher, ARTICLE 19’s Head of Asia Programme. “The National League for Democracy has failed to deliver on its promises to protect freedom of expression and roll back political repression. Five years after the NLD won the last general election, the laws used by previous regimes to restrict expression remain in place, and journalists continue to be arrested at a frightening pace.”
ARTICLE 19’s briefing paper, The Right to Freedom of Expression in the Context of Myanmar’s 2020 General Election, describes the laws and policies that will impact freedom of expression during Myanmar’s election period. Myanmar is scheduled to hold elections for state, region, and Union-level legislative bodies in late 2020. The briefing paper analyses Myanmar’s electoral laws as well as general restrictions on freedom of expression in Myanmar’s legal framework and considers the threats posed by ‘hate speech’ and misinformation during the election period. It provides recommendations to the government of Myanmar to protect the right to freedom of expression during the upcoming elections and identifies priorities for future reforms.
As the 2020 elections approach, journalists, human rights defenders, and others exercising their right to freedom of expression have been prosecuted for sharing political opinions online, writing articles highlighting government or military abuses, and protesting human rights violations. Most recently, several editors of news outlets were charged under Myanmar’s 2014 Counter-Terrorism Law for publishing an interview with the spokesperson of the Arakan Army. They face possible sentences of life imprisonment.
An Internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin States has been ongoing for more than ten months, denying potential voters access to information about matters of significant public concern. A recent move by the Ministry of Transport and Communications to block several ethnic news websites, ostensibly because they published misinformation related to the coronavirus pandemic, represents another blow to independent media in the country. These measures severely restrict the space for political discourse ahead of the elections.
“Many countries around the world have used the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext to crack down on freedom of expression,” said Bugher. “Ethnic news outlets play an indispensable role in informing the public about matters relating to governance, politics, minority rights, and elections. The government’s decision to block these websites further undermines the legitimacy of the upcoming polls.”
During election periods, ‘hate speech’ and misinformation can contribute to violence, discrimination, and disenfranchisement. States have a legitimate interest in combatting these types of dangerous speech. However, proposed anti-‘hate speech’ legislation in Myanmar is likely to exacerbate, rather than ameliorate, the root causes of intolerance and discrimination. The government’s proposed law relies heavily on censorship and criminal sanction and is likely to be weaponised against political opponents and minority groups.
As described in the briefing, Myanmar law contains several provisions that threaten the right to freedom of expression. The Constitution, as well as laws regulating political parties and candidates, contain overly broad provisions that prohibit acts that threaten the State and the use of religion for political purposes. These provisions could be used against candidates, activists, and voters from ethnic and religious minority groups. Restrictions on political speech, including limitations on campaign messaging that were imposed by the Union Election Commission during the previous election period, amount to prior restraint and are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression.
“It is imperative that the Myanmar government immediately take steps to create space for public dialogue in advance of the elections,” said Bugher. “Authorities should stop arresting critics, ease restrictions on assembly and the Internet, and refrain from introducing measures to limit campaign speech. Other measures, such as amending Myanmar’s election laws, may take longer, but are ultimately necessary to protect the right to freedom of expression and advance the democratisation process in Myanmar.”