NEW YORK–The detention of Myanmar Now editor Ko Swe Win is part of an alarming trend to curb press freedom, PEN America said in a statement today.

On July 30, police detained editor Ko Swe Win of Myanmar Now at Yangon Airport.  Swe Win faces charges of defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for a Facebook post criticizing anti-Muslim monk Ashin Wirathu, a prominent leader in the hardline Buddhist organization Ma Ba Tha. The original complaint was filed in March by Ma Ba Tha follower Kyaw Myo Shwe, who initially sought to withdraw the lawsuit soon after. However, Kyaw Myo Shwe wrote again to the Ministry of Transport and Communication on July 20, asking to continue with the trial process. He later informed the police that he believed Swe Win was trying to flee the country. Swe Win has been released on bail pending a trial scheduled for August 7. Swe Win’s lawyer Khin Maug Khat told Reuters that police had misinterpreted his trip as an attempt to flee the country, adding that Swe Win was planning a short business trip to Bangkok and would have returned to Myanmar within 48 hours.

Article 66(d) of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law provides criminal penalties for those who use telecommunications networks—including social media—to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence, or intimidate.” Conviction can lead to up to three years imprisonment. Under the law, any citizen can file defamation charges against online content.

“Ko Swe Win’s case is indicative of a disturbing pattern in which journalists and writers as well as ordinary citizens now risk jail time for expressing their views online,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “The increased use of Article 66(d) is a threat to both Myanmar’s record on free expression and its newly established democracy, and it is crucial that the national legislature review the Telecommunications Law to ensure that it meets international standards and does not disproportionally criminalize speech.”

PEN Myanmar found in their May 2017 Free Speech Scorecard that since the new government assumed leadership there has been a sharp increase in the number of cases initiated under section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, with more than 55 defamation cases filed. That same report found that members of the public have also started bringing complaints under the law as a means to seek revenge against journalists whose coverage they disagree with. Swe Win himself has called for the reformation of the Telecommunications Law in a statement given after his arrest, saying that “it is good that this has happened. I have got to tackle this. The law should not exist…It will be good for the citizens as well.” Civil society groups, including a local free expression coalition led by PEN Myanmar, have called upon Myanmar’s government to amend or repeal the Telecommunications Law to prevent its abuse and ensure that freedom of expression is protected.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world.  Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

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