Forum blames laws, policies for worsening online freedom

A marked deterioration in online freedom of expression over the past year was due mainly to laws and policies, agreed an overwhelming majority of participants at a forum in Yangon on January 18.

A total of 68 percent of participants at the second Myanmar Digital Rights Forum said they believed online freedom of expression had worsened since the event was first held in December 2016.

Laws and policies were the “primary issue” for the worsening situation, said 69 percent of the 130 participants at the event, most from civil society groups and the rest from the private sector, government, parliament, media and academia.

On online privacy and security, 79 percent said it had worsened since December 2016, with laws and policies also being the primary issue.

However, 59 percent said online access had improved, though 65 percent said the rural vs. urban divide was the primary issue.

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The event was hosted and co-organised by innovation hub Phandeeyar together with Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, Free Expression Myanmar and non-profit Australia-based organisation, EngageMedia, with support from the Swedish government.

Speakers at the event included Yangon Region MP Ko Nay Phone Latt (National League for Democracy, Thingangyun-1), who was critical of a lack of public consultation on drafting laws.

“There is little to no public consultation when it comes to developing laws, which is a key challenge,” the prominent blogger was quoted as saying in a media release.

“The Citizen Privacy and Security Law, for example, is not well designed and in some ways, violates digital rights,” said Nay Phone Latt, who was released from jail in 2012 after serving four years of a 20-year sentence for blogging about the monk-led protests in 2007 known as the Saffron Revolution.

A speaker described in the media release as “representing” the ruling National League for Democracy, said the party had made promises it had not kept.

“We made many promises in our manifesto … and some we have not been able to deliver because of weak institutions, including the NLD itself. We do however recognise that our party is not the same as it used to be and we are trying to change,” the NLD representative was quoted as saying.

Another speaker representing lawyers said courts were unable to deal with digital rights issues.

“Judges don’t even understand what ‘share’ means. And the government hasn’t made even a single scratch in reforming the courts. In practice we see the head moving one way and the body moving the other,” the lawyer said.

A speaker representing the media said digital technology had enabled journalists to work faster and more efficiently and to hear from the people about the topics they wanted covered.

“Unfortunately the laws and policies are weak and don’t support us,” the media representative said.

Ms Helani Galpaya, the chief executive of LIRNEasia, a regional policy and ICT regulation think tank based in Sri Lanka, highlighted a gender discrepancy in phone use.

“Women in Myanmar are 28 percent less likely to own phones than men. This needs to go up. But at least we have this number to try to improve on – whereas for persons with disabilities, we don’t even know what the number is,” she said.

“These are complex issues and it is critical that we work together to address them,” Ma Ei Myat Noe, digital rights manager at Phandeeyar, said in the media release.

“The objective of Myanmar Digital Rights Forum is to bring together all relevant stakeholders annually to share and exchange on digital rights issues and collaborate on solutions,” she said.

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