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66(d) amendments on the table, but advocates call for repeal

A reporter shows signatures they collected in support of press freedom at the Myanmar Journalist Network office in Rangoon (Reuters)

A draft bill to amend the controversial Telecommunications Law was submitted to the parliament’s Upper House on Thursday.

The proposed amendments include allowing bail, changing the ministry’s name, removing the need for prior approval from the ministry, allowing only affected persons to file a lawsuit, and removing the clause “coercing, restraining wrongfully, causing undue influence and causing undue influence” from the law.

“Frequently, more and more lawsuits under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law are being filed”, said Kyaw Myo, the deputy minister of Transport and Communications who submitted the draft, referring to the raft of lawsuits that have been filed under the current government.

Since Htin Kyaw and the National League for Democracy took power a little over a year ago, sixty-five cases have been opened. By contrast, only seven were pursued under former president Thein Sein’s administration.

The vaguely worded law has also been used as a weapon against civilian critics of the military and those in power. A broad cross section of society ranging from poets, cartoonists, activists and the media has been targeted.

Kyaw Myo said his submission was in response to the high volume of complaints and the growing number of people being wrongly accused. 

He explained that the amendments aim to make the offenses bailable, telling the Hluttaw, “if one is unfairly accused to be convicted of, he/she shall have the rights to refute or to submit a bail request freely.”

The Telecommunications Law was introduced under the former quasi-civilian government in 2013 and was enacted for “the general public to get access to quality communication services as well as for the ministry to oversee telecommunications services and to protect service providers and users of such services in line with the law.”

But domestic and international observers say the proposed changes don’t go far enough. In a joint statement released by 61 organisations at the end of June, advocates called for the law to be repealed.

The signatories said, “The current review of the Telecommunications Law offers an important opportunity to repeal section 66(d) and bring the 2013 Telecommunications Law fully in line with international human rights law and standards.”

The law, which carries a maximum prison term of three years, has also been used to gag the local press. Fourteen journalists have been slapped with defamation charges by June this year, according to the Telecommunications Law Research Group. The group is headed by Maung Saungkha, who himself was jailed in 2016 under the defamation law. Last month bail was denied for The Voice Daily’s editor-in-chief and a satire columnist for the newspaper on Thursday, who are facing defamation charges for a satire take on the on the country’s long-running civil conflict.

Demonstrations have since been staged around Rangoon by The Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists (PCMJ), launching the “White Armbands” campaign condemning the prosecutions under 66(d).

Tun Tun Hein, Chair of Hluttaw Bills Committee, said on Monday, “there will be a hearing of the draft bill in a week and all relevant individuals will be invited to the occasion.”