Burma‘s government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), should amend and abolish laws that threaten freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Wednesday.
Laws covering areas from telecommunications to defamation have been used to arrest at least 70 people this month, said the report’s author, Linda Lakhdhir.
The arrests come despite reforms by former President Thein Sein and the NLD, which won elections last November election in a landslide, giving it control of both houses of parliament and installing Suu Kyi as the country’s de facto leader.
“We think there has been a mixed bag of achievements on behalf of the new government,” said David Mathieson, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, referring to the NLD’s efforts to ease laws restricting freedom of speech.
While the NLD deserved credit for freeing many political prisoners, the “legal architecture of repression” that put them behind bars remained largely in place, Mathieson added.
The NLD, made up of many former activists and dissidents, has scrapped some restrictive laws and proposed changes to others, such as the Peaceful Assembly Law, which allows for protests that were barred under the junta, but still imposes limits, and is used to arrest and jail many demonstrators.
The NLD’s proposed changes to the law are an improvement, Human Rights Watch has said, but they do not go far enough.
The draft bill, being discussed in parliament, would punish protesters for spreading “wrong” information and make it an offence for them to swerve from slogans registered in advance with the authorities.
Also troubling, the report said, was a broadly worded clause of the Telecommunications Law that prohibits use of the telecoms network to, “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate”.
Arrests of social media users whose posts are deemed distasteful have continued under Suu Kyi’s government.
“While some of these posts may be considered offensive by some, being offensive is not a crime,” said Lakhdhir.
Enacting change in Burma is not a simple task.
Under the country’s semi-civilian government, the military controls 25 percent of the seats in parliament and three ministries, including home affairs, which oversees the police.
Sensitivities over the portrayal of the army as the country deals with the legacy of 49 years of harsh military rule have been exposed in recent weeks.
7Day News Journal, a popular newspaper, was sued by a member of the military last week for a story that carried comments from Shwe Mann, a top member of the former junta who is now a close confidant of Suu Kyi and has been ousted from the military-backed party.
The charges, levelled against the editor-in-chief and a reporter, claimed that his comments could aid in a mutiny and carried a sentence of 10 years imprisonment but were dropped late Wednesday, according to staff member who asked not to be name.
7Day published a lengthy apology on Tuesday expressing “deep regret” to the armed forces, saying that it did not intend to “incite disloyalty” of the armed forces.
The publication said that it would carefully edit future stories that dealt with the armed forces.
“The military maintains an air of menace,” Mathieson said. “They are ultra sensitive about how they are perceived in the community and willing to threaten and sue people.”