NEW YORK – The authorities’ decision to move forward with the legal case filed on March 7 against investigative journalist Ko Swe Win is the latest example of how defamation charges can be used as a cudgel against online speech in Myanmar, PEN America said in a statement today.

Ko Swe Win, chief correspondent for the daily online newspaper Myanmar Now, reportedly posted on his Facebook profile a Myanmar Now article discussing U Wirathu, a hardline Buddhist monk known for his hate speech against Muslims. U Wirathu had recently made statements applauding the recent murder of prominent Burmese Muslim lawyer and government advisor U Ko Ni; the Myanmar Now article quoted a senior abbot who stated that such statements constituted a serious breach of monastic conduct.

In response, a follower of U Wirathu brought a claim of online defamation against Ko Swe Win under Section 66(D) of Myanmar’s Telecommunication Law after the journalist refused to apologize or retract the post. Under this law, online defamation is a criminal offense punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Police confirmed on March 9 that they had decided to move forward with an investigation.

“Provisions like Section 66(D), which impose harsh penalties for online speech, have no place in today’s Myanmar,” said Karin Karlekar, Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “We are disappointed that the authorities have agreed to take on this case, and we urge Myanmar’s legislature to review the Telecommunications Law to ensure that it meets international standards.”

As documented in PEN America’s 2015 report Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for Free Expression in Myanmar, a range of restrictive laws, many held over from colonial or military rule, remain on the books and continue to chill media and online speech. Prosecutions under Section 66(D) have actually increased since the end of military rule. Various rights groups, including PEN America, have publicly called upon Myanmar’s government to amend or repeal the Telecommunications Law to prevent its abuse and ensure a high level of protection for freedom of expression.

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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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