Burma’s parliament on Friday made minor changes to a controversial telecommunications law, amendments rights monitors say will do little to address concern the law is used to curb criticism of the authorities and reporting of corruption.
The recent arrest of several journalists has raised fears that free speech is under pressure in Burma, even under a government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, who led efforts to end decades of military rule and won a landmark election in 2015.
Under the amendments approved on Friday, judges can release on bail those charged under the law. Also, only people directly affected by an alleged offence, or those with the permission of an affected person, can press charges under the law, first introduced in 2013.
The maximum prison sentence was also cut to two years from three.
But the law’s most contentious clause, which broadly prohibits the use of the telecommunications network to “extort, defame, disturb or intimidate” remains in place.
“Freedom of expression is still being threatened as long as clause 66(d) exists,” said activist Maung Saung Kha, who was jailed for six months for defamation under the law, referring to the contentious clause.
Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy holds majorities in both houses of parliament meaning the amended law is likely to be enacted soon.
Rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, had called for the clause to be repealed. In a joint statement in June, they said the law had “increasingly been used to stifle criticism of the authorities”.
“Many of today’s members of parliament and local leaders from the NLD spent many months or years in prison for speaking out for human rights and democracy during the military regimes, so why is the party falling so far short of fixing the problem?” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
But some members of the ruling party have defended the law as useful for curbing hate speech and false news as social media use has dramatically grown since the onset of reforms in 2011.
A senior party member, Han Tha Myint, said a majority of parliamentarians liked the protection against online criticism the law provided.
“I don’t mean they’ll sue everybody who criticises them, but they like this,” said Han Tha Myint referring to clause 66 (d).
According to the advocacy group Research Team for Telecommunications Law, 17 journalists have been charged or arrested under the law since Suu Kyi’s government took power last year.