On Monday, exactly two weeks after seizing power, Myanmar’s new ruling junta introduced changes to the Electronic Transactions Law that represent a great leap back to the days before the country started opening up to the outside world a decade ago.
The Electronic Transactions Law was first enacted in 2004 by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the regime headed by former dictator Senior General Than Shwe.
The law emerged in response to the regime’s needs at a time when most information technologies were still very new to Myanmar. Except for the heavy punishments it imposed, it was not so different from laws drafted for similar purposes in other developing countries, according to IT experts.
Then, 10 years later and under very different political circumstances, parliament revised the law to make it more compatible with the needs of the eCommerce industry and the explosion of IT-related activities that are now a part of everyday life.
With this week’s amendments, however, the regime has reversed this trend towards greater openness in order to address a more pressing concern—its desire to rein in growing protests against the return to military rule.
‘Heading back into a dark age’
For millions of people around the country, smartphones and social media have become tools for expressing their anger at the military takeover and organizing their resistance to it.
At the same time, new technologies have been invaluable to local and international media outlets as they seek to cover every aspect of the ongoing crisis, from mass protests to police crackdowns and the arrests of MPs, activists and civilians.
But while the changes to the Electronic Transactions Law are clearly aimed at the current situation, their impact will likely be deep and far-reaching.
“We are now heading back into a dark age,” said Zayar Hlaing, the editor of Mawkun magazine.
He said that the newly amended law has many provisions that lack clear definitions, which he believes will inevitably result in journalists falling afoul of the law as they try to do their jobs.
Section 38c of the law, for instance, makes it a crime punishable by up to three years in prison to spread “fake news or disinformation” online with the intent to “defame, divide an association, alarm the public, or destroy public trust”—all of which are open to very broad interpretation.
“If they are not happy with the way a journalist reports on a certain subject—or indeed, even if it is an ordinary person who posts something that they don’t like on social media—they can arrest him right away by accusing him of causing alarm or defaming somebody,” said Zayar Hlaing, who is also one of five members of the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) who resigned on Wednesday in protest over the amendments.
A question of legitimacy
IT experts who spoke to Myanmar Now noted that the amended Electronic Transactions Law contains provisions the military initially tried to introduce in a new cybersecurity bill drafted soon after it seized power. That bill was immediately rejected by stakeholders, including the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Myanmar Computer Federation (MCF).
In a joint statement issued last Friday, 50 digitally-enabled companies said that no new laws governing the use of electronic media should be drafted without consultations with experts of various backgrounds and from different organizations. They also stated that under the constitution, only the elected parliament had the right to introduce new legislation.
The statement also noted that the cybersecurity bill includes open-ended clauses which seriously violate human rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and personal-data privacy and protection, as well as other basic democratic principles.
An IT expert who asked not to be identified said that the changes to the Electronic Transactions Law appeared to serve as a shortcut to implementing draconian measures aimed at protesters in the face of resistance to the cybersecurity bill from influential groups and companies.
“Since the MCF, UMFCCI and [Norwegian telecoms company] Telenor are still objecting to the cyber law, they amended this law so they could use it to oppress,” he said.
He added that the Electronic Transactions Law was originally introduced to facilitate the development of communications technologies and enable the verification of digital records and other data, not to deal with cybercrimes.
Htike Htike Aung, the executive director of Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), agreed that the amendments had little to do with the law’s intended purpose.
“The additional clauses under section 38 are exactly the same as provisions described in the cybersecurity bill. The law itself was supposed to make eCommerce and online transactions secure, but the amendments are just there to put whatever they want into law,” she said.
“A military regime that came to power by committing a coup has no authority to enact a law, so any laws they make will be unacceptable, since their legitimacy remains questionable. Therefore, we didn’t accept the cybersecurity bill,” she added.
A warning to the press
Even before the amendments were introduced, the newly installed regime put the media on notice that its already very limited freedoms were not to be taken for granted.
The first sign of trouble came on February 2, the day after the coup, when a number of freelance journalists in Pathein, the capital of Ayeyarwady region, were summoned by police and warned about their activities.
Nearly two weeks later, when soldiers fired on protesters in Myitkyina on February 15, they also rounded up five journalists who witnessed the incident. They were released the next day, but the message was clear: members of the press are also in the army’s sights.
Although journalists in Myanmar already faced restrictions that could easily land them in prison, the latest changes are making the country’s media terrain even more treacherous to navigate.
“I can’t accept a law that’s like a rubber loop that can be opened and closed at will to impose control,” said Htet Naing Zaw, a Naypyitaw-based senior reporter for The Irrawaddy, a local news outlet.
“Not only as a journalist, but also as a citizen, I cannot accept such a law that could restrict the right to information of the people,” he added.
Others in the profession also expressed concern with the wider repercussions of the amendments, but noted that they were especially troubling for those in the business of keeping the public informed.
“The amendments seem particularly concerning for the media, as they would introduce heavy penalties for anyone who distributes news that causes panic or defames the government,” said Thomas Kean, the editor-in-chief of Frontier Myanmar magazine.
Noting that Myanmar already has several laws that include defamation and others, like the Telecommunications Law, that restrict freedom of expression, Kean suggested that the country should be trying to introduce further reforms, not more restrictions.
“Instead of adding more problematic laws, it should focus on reforming the framework for freedom of expression both online and offline,” he said.
For Myanmar’s journalists, who are well acquainted with the mindset of the country’s military rulers, none of this comes as a surprise. For some, like Ye Naing Moe, the founder of the Yangon Journalism School (YJS), the coup automatically marked the end of all basic freedoms, including freedom of expression.
But that doesn’t mean that journalism is dead in Myanmar; on the contrary, those who practice this profession will now be more determined than ever to make their mark as they resist a return to darker days by covering the coup as accurately as they can.
“Any law or order enacted or amended by the military won’t be able to change the mentality of the journalists. Because we, the journalists, know what is true,” said Ye Naing Moe.