(New York, NY) – PEN America today said charges should be dropped against three Burmese street artists arrested for purportedly “insulting religion.” PEN America also said that their arrest exemplifies the abusive potential of laws that penalize peaceful speech.

On April 3, Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai, and Naw Htun Aung were charged with violating article 295A of the Myanmar penal code, which criminalizes speech that “insults or attempts to insult” religion or religious beliefs. The artists were arrested after painting a mural intended to raise awareness about the coronavirus epidemic.

“These charges demonstrate how dangerous laws that criminalize peaceful speech can be,” said Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection project. “These artists are being censored and criminalized for posting a public health message, and authorities are allowing the law to be used as a de facto religious veto over public art. Laws like Article 295A are frequently used to silence speech that is of legitimate public concern. That is exactly what is happening here. These laws should be immediately amended or repealed to align with international guarantees of free expression, and the charges against Zayar Hnaung, Ja Sai, and Naw Htun Aung should be dropped.”

The mural in question encouraged people stay home and depicted a Grim Reaper-like figure spreading coronavirus. Hardline Buddhists took offense and alleged the Grim Reaper resembled a Buddhist monk. The criminal charges against the artists carry a term of up to two years in prison.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection, a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.