Low expectations as Pyithu Hluttaw passes Telecoms Law amendments

By NYAN HLAING LYNN | FRONTIER

NAY PYI TAW — The process of amending the Telecommunications Law – including section 66(d) ­– looks set to continue for a while longer, after the Pyithu Hluttaw on August 18 approved changes to the amendment bill that recently passed the Amyotha Hluttaw.

While activists and rights groups have called for 66(d) to be scrapped or significantly changed, the amendments being considered by parliament are relatively minimal and unlikely to appease those who oppose the law.

The main point of difference between the two house’s proposed changes are related to the maximum jail term. Last month, the Amyotha Hluttaw maintained the current three-year maximum jail term, but made bail available for defendants. In the version approved by the Pyithu Hluttaw last week, lawmakers cut the maximum sentence to two years, making it a bailable offence.

The bill has now been sent back to the Amyotha Hluttaw. If an agreement cannot be reached between the two houses, it will be put to a vote in the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, a combined session of the upper and lower houses.

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Speaking in the Pyithu Hluttaw on August 18, Deputy Minister for Transport and Communications U Kyaw Myo said that 187 lawsuits had been brought under the clause between April 2016 and July 2017. This number is significantly higher than the 88 cases that a research team calling for changes to the clause say have been brought under 66(d).

“To speak frankly, there are people who don’t understand Myanmar culture and Buddhist culture and are immature, that is why so many lawsuits have occurred,” said Kyaw Myo.

A small cohort of lawmakers from the ruling National League for Democracy have called for 66(d) to be repealed, but their appeals do not appear to be gaining much traction with their colleagues.

Dr Sein Mya Aye (NLD, Dala Township, Yangon Region) argued in parliament that sections 499/500 of the country’s Penal Code already has provisions for defamation, so the 66(d) clause in its current form is unnecessary. Responding to the question, Bill Committee chairman U Tun Tun Hein (NLD, Nawnghkio Township, Shan State) justified the clause by saying that the Penal Code makes no mention of using a communication network.

However, in 2015, the 1872 Evidence Act was amended to enable telecommunications documents to be submitted as evidence in cases heard under the Penal Code. The amendment describes a document as “any substance by means of letters, figures or mark”. 

Senior NLD figures, including Pyithu Hluttaw Speaker U Win Myint, have spoken out in favour of keeping 66(d), arguing that without it the country will fall into “lawless anarchy”. Users also need to be protected from defamation, they say.

“When we protect the users in accordance with the law, we need to protect honest users,” said Kyaw Myo, the deputy minister.

But critics of the law disagree and have continuously called for it to be significantly amended or repealed.

Maung Saungkha, who spent six months in prison after being found guilty under section 66(d), has criticised the proposed amendments. One of the major issues, he said, is the lack of exceptions in the telecommunications law, unlike under Section 499 of the Penal Code, which offers 10 exceptions in relation to defamation.

The lack of a definition for defamation in the Telecommunications Law allows the government and the Tatmadaw to use it against critics and opponents.

The current amendments being considered by parliament do not go far enough, he said.

“Far from planning to cancel 66(d), we cannot say that the law is being amended,” he said. “It is only a show-off to make these amendments because of the public outcry.”

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