By Anwesha Bhaumik
Kolkata, July 20 | IFEX, the global network of over 100 organisations dedicated to defending the freedom of expression and information, has urged Myanmars military junta to drop all charges under its repressive censorship legislation, Penal Code section 505A, and to immediately release all the detained protesters and journalists.
IFEX has also called for the restoration of media licenses to its member Mizzima News and other media outlets who have played an essential role in shedding light on the violence inflicted by the junta against their own people.
At least 897 people have been killed and over 6,500 arrested, charged or sentenced since the February 1 coup.
Shortly after seizing power, the junta amended section 505A to criminalise comments that supposedly “cause fear”, spread misinformation, or incite crimes against government employees.
Offences under section 505A are non-bailable and subject to arrest without a warrant, with a guilty charge punishable by up to three years in prison.
Legal experts have highlighted how the legislation has been used widely against opponents of military rule.
“This legislation is typical of how repressive regimes the world over seek to silence critics, limit civic space and threaten the safety and freedom of expression of journalists and media outlets,” stated IFEX Executive Director Annie Game.
“With the junta continuing to perpetrate violence against their own people, access to reliable information has never been so important. All charges under section 505A should be dropped, all protesters and journalists freed, and media licenses restored so that our colleagues at Mizzima News and other outlets can operate freely.”
Addressing a recent session of the UN Human Rights Council, Thomas H. Andrews, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights in Myanmar, described how the military junta continues to stifle freedom of expression, including by “using criminal defamation charges to target journalists, human rights defenders, and civil society leaders”.
Speaking at the same session, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet labelled the situation in Myanmar as a “multi-dimensional human rights catastrophe”, that requires immediate action.
She pointed to the silencing of civil voices, the arrests of journalists, and the shuttering of media outlets, and highlighted “multiple reports of enforced disappearances; brutal torture and deaths in custody; and the arrest of relatives or children in lieu of the person being sought”.
IFEX has particularly called for restoring the license for its member organisation Mizzima News, which has been one of the many targets of these attacks.
Since the coup, Mizzima has been outlawed and their offices raided. Despite these threats, the organisation has continued to operate, oppose the coup, and call for the restoration of democracy.
In response, the military junta has charged 18 Mizzima staff members and journalists under section 505A, including Ko Zaw Zaw, the Myeik-based freelance reporter who was sentenced to two years in prison.
Women human rights defenders and journalists have been at particular risk of arrest under the legislation.
On April 8, Thin Thin Aung, co-founder of Mizzima, was arrested in Yangon along with James Pu Thoure, a Mizzima staff member.
Her house was ransacked, her computer seized and the entirety of her and her news outlet’s funds taken away. Both of them were taken to Mingalardon interrogation centre (Yay Kyi Aing) for two weeks, before being transferred to Yangon’s Insein prison on April 21.
Thin Thin Aung remains in prison to this day, charged under section 505A. Her next court hearing is scheduled for July 28.
There have been numerous calls for her release, including from a group of Nobel Peace Prize Laureates, with concerns being expressed over her health and high risk of torture.
IFEX member organisations across the Asia-Pacific region and the globe have expressed their strong condemnation of the coup and support for those struggling for their rights.
Updates from the developing situation in Myanmar are available on the websites of IFEX and Mizzima.