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Free Expression in Myanmar

The Issue

Since the February 2021 coup, the state of free expression in Myanmar has rapidly deteriorated. Prior to the military’s seizure of power, Myanmar already ranked among the world’s top 10 jailers of writers, poets, and public intellectuals, and the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party had proved hostile to dissident voices and independent journalism, had failed to reform a swathe of repressive laws that criminalized a wide range of peaceful expression, and had restricted access to news and information via lengthy internet shutdowns. These threats and challenges to free expression serve as an alarming backdrop to the dramatic escalation of human rights abuses carried out by the military junta—a stunning reversal of the hope instilled by the historic NLD election victory in 2015.

Under military rule, journalists, writers, poets, other creative artists, and public intellectuals have been targeted and detained for spurious national security crimes such as “incitement” and “treason,” while dozens more have been arrested as part of a violent crackdown against sustained country-wide protests. Meanwhile, authorities have restricted basic communication with a whitelisted internet and have ramped up cybersurveillance. Media are under threat as Myanmar has revoked press licenses, banned satellite TV, and raided newsrooms. Despite these grave risks, individuals continue to engage in free and creative expression and cover the news, either from within the country or from exile.

Latest News

Artists at Risk Connection Releases New Podcast, ‘Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia’

September 14, 2021
In a limited-run podcast Creating Artistic Resilience: Voices of Asia from PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection, five artists and cultural rights defenders from Myanmar, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Bangladesh share their experiences of artistic freedom, activism and their stories of resilience in the face of resistance.  

PEN America Demands Myanmar Release US Journalist Danny Fenster

May 24, 2021
We are extremely concerned that the military junta's crackdown on the media and free expression has widened to target foreign journalists, including those working the few independent media outlets still operating in Myanmar.

PEN America Appalled by Death in Detention of Myanmar Poet

May 11, 2021
PEN America condemned the killing of poet Khet Thi and called on the ruling junta in Myanmar to cease targeting those speaking out.
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Individual Cases

Zarganar

Zarganar

On October 18, 2021, Zarganar was conditionally released after over six months in arbitrary detention. Zarganar was arrested and detained by the military junta on April 6, 2021, as part of a broader campaign by the military to crackdown on cultural figures following the February 2021 military coup.
Htin Lin Oo

Htin Lin Oo

Htin Lin Oo, a former information officer for the National League for Democracy, was detained without legitimate charges shortly after Myanmar’s military carried out a coup on February 1, 2021. Previously, in June 2015, he was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor for allegedly blasphemous speech.
Ma Thida

Ma Thida

Ma Thida is a Burmese human rights activist, surgeon, writer, and former prisoner of conscience. In October of 1994, she was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in Insein Prison on the charges of “endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organizations, and distributing unlawful literature.”
Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, both Myanmar reporters for the Reuters news agency, were arrested on December 12, 2017, and held incommunicado for several weeks. On May 7, 2019 after 511 days behind bars, they were freed from Insein prison as part of a mass presidential amnesty of more than 6,000 prisoners, and were reunited with their families.
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Commentary

Myanmar’s Escalating Digital Repression—and Activists' Digital Resistance

Myanmar’s Escalating Digital Repression—and Activists' Digital Resistance

Since Myanmar’s military seized power on February 1, it has employed increasingly sophisticated digital modes of repression, alongside physical and legal measures, to try to stem democratic resistance.
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Seven Ways Myanmar’s Military is Cracking Down on Free Expression in the Wake of the Coup

Seven Ways Myanmar’s Military is Cracking Down on Free Expression in the Wake of the Coup

As the United Nations warns that Myanmar could descend into “full blown conflict,” the risks to writers, demonstrators, journalists, human rights activists, and artists couldn’t be more dire.
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The PEN Pod: On The University of Austin, Myanmar, and China

The PEN Pod: On The University of Austin, Myanmar, and China

“We’re extremely happy for Danny Fenster. . . but I think the real question is, do we see any loosening vis-à-vis the free expression of Myanmar’s own reporters and writers?”
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Myanmar's Slow Strangulation of Online Speech

Myanmar's Slow Strangulation of Online Speech

While Saung Kha was one of the first poets arrested and imprisoned under Article 66(d) of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law, he would not be the last.
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Advocacy

#BringDannyHome: Share Illustrations of US Journalist Danny Fenster

#BringDannyHome: Share Illustrations of US Journalist Danny Fenster

Together, these portraits say: “Witness matters. Journalists are essential. Let’s protect them, and let’s #BringDannyHome.”
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20 Expert Civil Society Organizations Urge Myanmar to Fully Guarantee Right to Freedom of Expression in the Constitution

20 Expert Civil Society Organizations Urge Myanmar to Fully Guarantee Right to Freedom of Expression in the Constitution

PEN America joined 19 free expression and human rights organizations to urge a review of Myanmar’s constitution that guarantees democratic rights to free expression, media freedom, and access to information.
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Joint Call for Myanmar Authorities to Drop Case Against Swe Win and Decriminalize Defamation

Joint Call for Myanmar Authorities to Drop Case Against Swe Win and Decriminalize Defamation

On the second anniversary of the defamation charges brought upon Ko Swe Win, editor at online newspaper Myanmar Now, PEN America joined 76 other civil society organizations to call on the relevant authorities to drop the case against him.
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Protecting Your Voice In A Pandemic: A COVID-19 Free Expression Information Center - Myanmar

Protecting Your Voice In A Pandemic: A COVID-19 Free Expression Information Center - Myanmar

In response to the pandemic, PEN America’s COVID-19 Free Expression Information Center houses the latest news and tools to help journalists, writers, human rights defenders, and protestors in Myanmar protect their right to free expression and continue their important work.
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Learn More About Writers at Risk Globally

During 2020, according to data collected for PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, Myanmar jailed at least eight writers and public intellectuals in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism; ranking Myanmar among the top ten jailers of writers in the world. Globally, 35 countries—spanning all geographic regions—jailed at least 273 writers. The annual Freedom to Write Index has become an essential component of PEN America’s long-standing Writers at Risk Program, which encompasses support for and advocacy on behalf of writers under threat around the world.

Freedom To Write Index 2020 Featured Image

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