Myanmar urged to reinstate internet, fix telecoms law on anniversary of shutdown

Myanmar is facing a barrage of calls by the international and business community as well as civil rights organisations to lift an internet shutdown imposed in the conflict areas of Rakhine and Chin states.

With the blackout, which has affected over one million people, entering its second year this weekend, calls for the government to end the ban are getting louder.

The cutting of mobile internet services, which rights groups say is the world’s longest government-imposed internet shutdown, is having a direct impact on daily life and hindering the response to the COVID-19 pandemic in the townships affected. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government ordered the restrictions at the request of the military to deal with a mounting insurgency. Since January 2019, hundreds of civilians have been killed and more than 100,000 displaced by widespread fighting between the Tatmadaw (military) and the Arakan Army. The government also blocked over 2000 websites, including Rakhine-based news outlets, and charged journalists covering the conflict under the Anti-Terrorism Law.

The ban started a year ago, when the Ministry of Transport and Communications, at the military’s request, imposed restrictions on mobile internet services in eight townships in northern Rakhine and Paletwa township in Chin State. It temporarily lifted restrictions in five townships from September 2019 until February 2020, when they were reimposed. On May 2, the authorities lifted the ban in Maungdaw.

However, these directives were not made public. “The lack of transparency in the shutdown is one of the worst aspects and undermines the rule of law,” commented Daw Yin Yadanar Thein, director of rights group Free Expression Myanmar.

And despite statements from local associations and western embassies to lift the internet ban, the ministry said this month it would extend the internet shutdown until at least August 1 in the remaining eight townships, citing security concerns.

U Soe Thein, the ministry’s permanent secretary, told a press briefing that internet services will resume “if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the Telecommunications Law.”

Businesses urge reform

But a growing number of legal experts, businesses and civil society are calling on the government to reform Article 77, the legal basis of the government’s shutdown order, saying the prolonged internet ban is bad for both business and Myanmar’s human rights record.

The Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business (MCRB) noted that the law poses a human rights risk for companies, and inhibits their ability to operate responsibly.

The MCRB had already highlighted the weaknesses in Article 77 and other parts of the legal framework regarding the government’s duty to protect human rights five years ago.

Senior executives at Ooredoo, Telenor and internet service firm Frontiir have taken part in an initial discussion around reforming the Telecoms Law, according to a source involved in the discussion. Telenor has publicly raised its concerns over the shutdown.

The move came after five major business lobby groups publicly warned of “possible reputational impact in the international community and view of Myanmar as a responsible investment destination” because of the internet shutdown.

The digital initiative of EuroCham Myanmar, consisting of businesses in the digital economy, has repeatedly told the government that the lack of fair access to the internet constitutes a severe problem.

“The increased reliance on the internet brings a responsibility for the government to ensure citizens have equal and fair access to the internet,” said the chamber.

The Global Network Initiative, a US-based network of over 60 business and civil society organisations, including Facebook and Telenor, is examining the Myanmar situation. GNI executive director Judith Lichtenberg said some companies had engaged directly with the authorities to convince them to keep disruptions narrow, affecting a particular site, instead of the entire network.

Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser for Human Rights Watch, said the Telecoms Law should at a minimum provide a process through which the telecoms companies can challenge orders that, in their view, are inconsistent with their human rights obligations.

Reviewing Article 77

How likely is it for the law to be amended? James Rodehaver, a UN senior human rights official, said that any legal measure restricting the right to access information or any other human right, must comply with the principles of proportionality and necessity.

Any limitation of the right must only be undertaken in the most exceptional circumstances and imposes the most minimal restrictions possible for the shortest possible time period. The restrictions should also be subject to full and regular judicial review.

“In this situation, a total shutdown of mobile internet service for over a year suggests that the measure in place is not designed to be minimally restrictive or temporary in nature,” Mr Rodehaver told The Myanmar Times.

Ms Lakhdhir said Article 77 and its current application “needs a fundamental overhaul” because the government is “taking advantage of a broadly worded law in ways that raise serious human rights concerns.”

For example, Article 77 allows the government to order internet shutdowns, the blocking of websites, and the interception of communications “when an emergency situation arises” or “on the occurrence of a public emergency”. But the law does not define “emergency”, a lack of clarity which allows a broad application of the law.

“The government has used the ongoing conflict with the AA to justify the internet shutdown, but blanket suspensions of internet service are a blunt tool that will rarely be a proportionate response to a security threat,” she told The Myanmar Times.

“How can civilians protect themselves from ongoing armed conflict if they can’t access the internet to see where [it] is safe? How can people protect themselves from COVID-19 if they can’t get information about it?” she said. “Shutting down the entire internet in eight townships is risking lives and restricting the rights of millions of people.”

Jenny Domino, International Commission of Jurists associate legal adviser, also noted that actions based on Article 77 are not subject to independent judicial oversight by civilian courts, leaving it open to abuse by the authorities.

She added that most determinations under Article 77 are not publicly available. This lack of transparency makes it hard to hold government officials to account.

The foreign ministry has defended the internet suspension, saying in April that the move is to “prevent the misuse of the internet by the Arakan Army for their political and military agenda.” It said local communities can communicate via loudspeakers and SMS texts and the ban does not constitute a hindrance to the government’s COVID-19 health campaign or humanitarian work.

But rights activists disagree. Human Rights Watch cited humanitarian workers saying that the internet ban, along with restrictions on access by aid agencies, has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the coronavirus outbreak.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), an independent think-tank, said in a report this month that the blackout “hampers both the effective dissemination of public health information and disease surveillance.”

Importantly, the blackout has also made voter education and online campaigning impossible ahead of general elections due in November.

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Source : Myanmar Times

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