The new democratically elected government of Myanmar needs to make significantly more progress reforming laws regarding media, digital freedom, and other rights if free expression is to be fully protected in the country, a panel of experts assembled by PEN Myanmar has found. 

The free expression “scorecard” assessment comes midway through Myanmar’s first year under the leadership of the National League for Democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi. It was released in conjunction with the third annual general meeting of PEN Myanmar on December 3 in Yangon.

PEN Myanmar’s members also elected a new board and selected Myo Myint Nyein, a writer and former political prisoner, as president. He replaces founding president Ma Thida, whose three-year term saw PEN Myanmar established as an important voice promoting free speech and media reform and celebrating literary expression in the country.

The experts assembled for the scorecard assessment, representing civil society groups promoting free expression and information access, noted the high expectations for improvement in the free expression environment under the country’s new government. While recognizing that the challenges of reversing decades of repression, including not only rewriting numerous laws but also addressing entrenched practices, they pointed to multiple areas in which no clear path forward has been explicated by the new government.

The scorecard examined whether there had been progress in six areas: laws and regulations; media independence and freedom; digital freedom; freedom of assembly, speech, and opinion; right to information; and safety and security for those exercising free expression rights.

Participants concurred that there was improvement in freedom of assembly, speech and opinion, and some progress with laws and regulations, notably the rescinding of the Emergency Provisions act. They found largely no change for other indicators, however, and noted with particular concern a deterioration in digital freedom. In particular, they urged the government to abolish Article 66 (d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law, a vague and outdated provision that is being used increasingly to detain and pursue legal cases against journalists and other citizens for their social media posts. PEN Myanmar will review the scorecard assessment again in 2017 after the new government’s first year in office.

PEN Myanmar was founded in 2013, fulfilling the dream of Ma Thida, who was recognized by PEN America with the 1996 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award while serving a 20-year sentence for her work to promote democracy under Myanmar’s military dictatorship. Another founder of PEN Myanmar, blogger Nay Phone Latt, received the PEN America award in 2010 while imprisoned for his reporting on protests. PEN America has partnered with PEN Myanmar since its inception to support its organizational development, assistance made possible by the Horne Family Charitable Foundation.