Protecting Your Voice In A Pandemic:
A COVID-19 Free Expression Information Center
In response to—and under the cover of—the COVID-19 global pandemic, governments around the world have implemented strict surveillance measures and exacerbated preexisting restrictions on free expression. PEN America has created this page to help journalists, writers, human rights defenders, and protestors equip themselves with the knowledge and tools to protect their rights and continue their important work. Below, you will find the latest news and key developments from Myanmar—to learn more about what is happening on the ground in other countries, click through our pages on Ukraine, Honduras, and Uganda.
Last updated on 06/11/2021.
FIGHTING IN MYANMAR CONTINUES AS DISPLACEMENT AND HEALTH RISKS GROW
As fighting continues in Myanmar, the United Nations has warned of “mass deaths from starvation, disease and exposure” after the military forced approximately 100,000 people in Kayah State to flee into forests. Most are cut off from food, water, and medicine.
As of June 11, 861 people have been confirmed killed by the junta. Additionally, 5,985 people have been arrested, with 4,823 individuals still in detention. On June 8, the Myanmar Red Cross said they would increase their emergency support for those in Myanmar affected by COVID as well as upheaval from the coup.
AUNG SAN SUU KYI CHARGED WITH CORRUPTION
On June 10, ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi—who faces a number of criminal charges—was additionally charged with corruption. Suu Kyi will face trial for the other charges against her next week.
TARGETING OF JOURNALISTS SHOWS NO SIGNS OF CEASING
More than two weeks after American journalist Danny Fester was detained at Yangon airport, he has still not been released. According to The Guardian, Fester is being held at Yangon’s Insein prison and has not been allowed to see a lawyer or any visitors. On June 3, two Burmese journalists—Aung Kyaw and Zaw Zaw—were sentenced to two years in prison for their reporting.
831 KILLED IN MYANMAR AS PROTESTS AND CRACKDOWNS CONTINUE
As of May 27, a total of 831 people are confirmed to have been killed since the coup, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners. Additionally, nearly 5,500 individuals have been arrested and more than 4,000 still remain in detention. It has become clear that the junta has been using corpses as tools of terror. The Associated Press and the Human Rights Center Investigations Lab at the University of California, Berkeley identified at least 130 instances where security forces used bodies of the dead and wounded to terrorize other civilians.
The junta has continued to target professional groups. As of May 22, more than 125,000 teachers have been suspended for opposing the coup and around 19,500 university staff have also been suspended. Moreover, it has been confirmed that more than 30 poets have been arrested since the coup began. Journalists also continue to be regularly targeted. On May 25, the managing editor of Frontier magazine, Danny Fester, was detained at Yangon airport as he was preparing to board an international flight. You can read PEN America’s statement calling for Fester’s release here.
MILITARY USING TELECOMS SECTOR TO SPY ON CITIZENS
According to Reuters, before the Feb 1 coup, the military had ordered Myanmar’s telecom and internet service providers to install spyware that would allow them to intercept the communications of citizens. This includes: listening to calls, viewing text messages, viewing web traffic, and tracking the locations of users.
MORE THAN 100 DAYS AFTER THE COUP, CRACKDOWNS CONTINUE AS COVID RAGES ON
May 10 marked 100 days since the junta seized power of the country and, as of May 14, 788 people have died because of the coup. As anti-coup resistance efforts continue, Myanmar military forces have been battling with civilian militias and the junta’s raids and crackdowns show no sign of ceasing. Recently, poet Khet Thi died after undergoing detention and torture by security forces. As the country’s economy deteriorates, many citizens are also facing extreme poverty and struggling to find enough food for themselves and their families.
Below you will find significant governmental, civil societal, and technological trends shaping the state of freedom of expression in Myanmar today.
MILITARY IS USING SURVEILLANCE DRONES, IPHONE CRACKING DEVICES, AND HACKING SOFTWARE TO CRACKDOWN ON PROTESTORS AND ACTIVISTS
According to The New York Times, the military has been deploying a digital arsenal against participants in the pro-democracy movement, including the use of “Israeli-made surveillance drones, European iPhone cracking devices, and American software that can hack into computers and vacuum up their contents.” Documents provided by Justice for Myanmar show that government budgets for the past two years showed millions of dollars spent on military-grade surveillance technology with the capabilities to mine computer and phone data, track locations, and listen in on conversations.
In their analysis, the Times also found that, to track critics of the coup, the military has been relying on protesters’ social media posts and the individual addresses of their internet hookups to find where they live, work which requires specialized surveillance infrastructure and foreign technology.
MILITARY GOVERNMENT AMENDS THE LAW PROTECTING THE PRIVACY AND SECURITY OF CITIZENS
Although the military junta has not proceeded further with their draft Cyber Security Law, following great outcry and public scrutiny, the government has managed to pass significant elements of it into law through recent legal amendments to the “Privacy Law,” or the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens (2017). According to analysis from Clyde & Co LLP, the military’s suspension of Section 5, 7, and 8 under the law will now permit the government to enter people’s homes to conduct searches, seizures, and arrests; to extend detention without judicial oversight; and to carry out surveillance and investigative activities, including the interception of telecommunications, without respect for privacy rights.
MYANMAR’S MILITARY USING PANDEMIC TO JUSTIFY ARRESTS AND EXPAND MILITARY POWER
In recent analysis, visiting scholar at Queen Mary University of London’s International State Crime Initiative Ronan Lee outlined how the military has relied on the pandemic to create justification for the coup and embed their post-coup rule. A growing number of political and civilian leaders — including ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President U Win Myint — have been arrested and charged under Article 25 of the National Disaster Management Law, utilized recently to prosecute violators of coronavirus restrictions. If sentenced, they could face a punishment of up to three years in prison and, following changes that the junta made to the Penal Code last week, could legally be detained indefinitely, even without any formal charges from the court.
MILITARY PASSES AMENDMENTS TO 2004 ELECTRONIC TRANSACTION LAW, THREATENING FREE EXPRESSION
On February 16, the military government passed several amendments to the 2004 Electronic Transaction Law, a law first enacted during the previous junta and intended to punish political dissidents and independent media. There is fear that the restoration of this law could be used to further crackdown on free speech, freedom of the press, and online activity.
MILITARY PROPOSES ALARMING CYBER SECURITY BILL
Myanmar’s military has proposed a draft of a cyber security bill that would give the government unprecedented power to censor and violate privacy rights. The Asia Internet Coalition — which includes companies such as Apple, Facebook, Google, and Amazon — joined more than 150 Myanmar civil society organizations in a statement condemning the bill, writing that it would “violate human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression, data protection, and privacy.”
Myanmar shuts down mobile internet services in the Rakhine and Chin states
The Myanmar government shut down internet services in certain towns in the Rakhine in Chin states on June 21, 2019. They have since lifted some, but not all, of the blockage, and reinstated the rest of them in February 2020. As part of the internet shutdown, the government has also shut down over 2,000 websites, including news outlets. The different phases were not made public, and the lack of transparency is a grave issue. At the same time, some journalists were charged under the Anti-Terrorism Law.
Article 77 allows the government to shut down internet, block websites, and intercept communications “when an emergency arises,” but The Myanmar Times notes how “emergency” is not defined in the law, allowing for broad-stroke application of the law. Furthermore, actions taken under Article 77 are not subject to judicial oversight.
GOVERNMENT INVOKES ARTICLE 77 TO TAKE DOWN MORE THAN 2,000 WEBSITES IN 2020
The Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) has directed all mobile operators to take down websites on the basis that they contain “adult/explicit content, child sexual abuse, and contribute to misinformation (“fake news”).” Of those websites that were taken down for contributions to misinformation, some are local media outlets in conflict regions with thousands of ethnic minority readers. MoTC has cited Article 77 as the basis of their actions.
COVID-19 and FREE EXPRESSION:
Reports and Trackers
- PEN America: Online Harassment Field Manual
- Free Expression Myanmar: Myanmar Protesters’ Toolkit
- Global Cyber Alliance: Cybersecurity Toolkit for Journalists
- Security In-a-Box: Digital Security Tools and Tactics
- Consumer Reports: Security Planner
- Tactical Tech: Holistic Security Manual for HRDs
- Front Line Defenders: Workbook on Security – Practical Steps for HRDs at Risk