ARTICLE 19 is seriously concerned by the newly-elected government’s first use of a highly repressive criminal defamation law written by the former military government, against the media house, Mizzima. We urge the government to drop the criminal case and ensure that the right to freedom of expression is fully protected in Myanmar.
On 7 July 2016, the editor-in-chief and a journalist for Mizzima will face a full criminal trial for an article published on 31 December 2015 in which Mizzima criticised a rival media house’s coverage of the government-backed Myanmar Peace Centre. The case is brought under article 34(d) of the Electronic Transactions Law (ETL) which includes a prohibition on defamatory statements made online which is very vaguely-defined. Under the ETL, Mizzima staff face potential imprisonment of up to three years, plus a fine.
“We urge the new government to stand behind their commitment to democratisation and drop State support for this case against Mizzima staff. There is absolutely no public interest in the State becoming involved in a case between two rival newspapers, and the only result will be future self-censorship by the media. Treating defamation as a criminal matter in which the full power of the State gets involved, as in this case, is disproportionate in a democracy,” said Thomas Hughes, Executive Director of ARTICLE 19.
“Under international law, criminal defamation laws such as the ETL are not a justifiable restriction on freedom of expression. The new government should aim to abolish criminal defamation laws, including those in the ETL and replace them, where necessary, with an appropriate civil defamation law that includes safeguards for the right to freedom of expression in accordance with international standards. The Myanmar government should also ensure that judges receive comprehensive training that encompasses international standards on the right to freedom of expression, including those relevant to implementing defamation legislation,” added Hughes.
Mizzima staff are being prosecuted under Article 34(d) of the ETL, which states: ‘Whoever commits any of the following acts shall, on conviction be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 years or with a fine or both … (d) creating, modifying or altering of information or distributing of information created, modified or altered by electronic technology to be detrimental to the interest of or to lower the dignity of any organization or any person.’
The ETL falls significantly short of international standards as it includes no protection for freedom of expression, and instead has provisions that are both vague and unnecessary in a democracy. For more information on comparing the ETL against international standards, please see Background Paper on freedom of expression in Myanmar. For more information on international standards relating to defamation, please see Defining Defamation.