A new site is tracking cases brought against journalists under Myanmar’s notorious 66(d) anti-defamation law

The #SayNoTo66D coalition wants to end the country's biggest legal threat to free speech.

By Victoria Milko
Splice Myanmar

Sitting in a downtown coffee shop in the bustling city of Yangon, Burmese poet Maung Saungkha looks up from a cup of espresso and smiles. “I’ve already been to jail because of 66(d) once,” says the poet, who was sentenced to six months imprisonment for defaming former Myanmar President Thein Sein with a poem about a tattoo on his own penis. “So being afraid of it isn’t something I think about anymore. Instead I spend my time working towards abolishing it.”

Earlier this year, Maung Saungkha founded free-speech advocacy group Athan, one of 22 activist organizations that came together last year to form the #SayNoTo66(d) coalition, which tracks charges and convictions under the notorious anti-defamation section of Myanmar’s 2013 Telecommunications Act.

Maung Saungkha was once jailed under article 66(d) for writing a poem. He is now part of the #SayNoTo66(d) coalition fighting to abolish 66(d). Photo by Victoria Milko

The vaguely-worded section states that those found guilty of “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening any person using a telecommunications network,” can be imprisoned for up to three years. Bail during often-protracted trial periods is granted at the discretion of the court. Maung Saungkha, who was denied bail, spent more than six months in jail during his trial; the same length of time as his eventual sentence.

“Section 66(d) is a threat to freedom of expression and media,” Burma Campaign UK wrote in a 2017 report. “It is widely used against journalists and activists. Some media even refuse to publish articles which criticize the military or government to avoid being sued and jailed… it also appears that some NLD leaders find section 66(d) useful to suppress criticism towards the government.”

A card printed and distributed by Free Expression Myanmar, explaining the perils of 66(d). The group is part of the #SayNoTo66(d) coalition. Photo by Victoria Milko

A resource for journalists

Visitors to the #SayNoTo66(d) website can quickly discover how—according to data compiled by members of the coalition—the use of 66(d) has indeed risen sharply since Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) took power.

More than 80% of reported cases have occurred under the NLD’s reign beginning in 2015. And infographics neatly illustrate how more than half of cases stem from matters “closely related to the State,” such as the military, public officials, and individuals involved in political parties.

According to a December 2017 report by #SayNoTo66(d) coalition member Free Expression Myanmar, there were 106 cases between November 2015 to November 2017, and 13 of the defendants were journalists.

Ei Myat Noe Khin, the digital rights manager at Yangon-based tech innovation lab Phandeeyar, which designed the new site, says it was created with journalists and activists in mind. “We made sure to do a visualization too, so people can easily see who the defendants are or how the cases are linked to people in positions of power,” she says.

The site, which is available in both Burmese and English, takes a strong advocacy approach, outlining reasons why the section should be abolished, providing a form for visitors to fill out should they know of a 66(d) case, and providing links to calls for repeal of the section that have been signed by both local and international organizations. A section is also devoted to popular Burmese memes criticizing 66(d).

“We know that we need to use every way we can to educate the people about 66(d) and why we should abolish it,” says Maung Saungkha. “That will be the only way we can move towards change, even if it is slow-moving.”

Despite the fact that Myanmar’s parliament decided to keep section 66(d) largely intact last year, the #SayNoTo66(d) coalition is optimistic that continued advocacy will ultimately push decision makers to change the law.

“It might take time, but people need to realize digital rights and freedom of speech are basic human rights,” emphasizes Ei Myat Noe Khin. “We need to protect people’s rights, and 66(d) clearly doesn’t do that. Thus we will keep working to try and abolish it.”

Myanmar is tightening restrictions on foreign media as mistrust grows.

This is Victoria Milko's personal story.

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Victoria Milko is a multimedia editor at Frontier Myanmar based in Yangon. She is a member of the Women Photojournalists of Washington and the National Press Photographers Association. Follow Victoria Milko on Twitter.

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