Joint Statement by Digital Rights Organizations and Other Civil Society Organizations on Ministry of Transport and Communications’ Order to Four Telecommunication Service Providers to Block 221 Websites
1. In the last week of March 2020, the government issued several directives to Myanmar telecom operators ordering them to block at least 221 websites. The government did not make these directives public nor did it publish the list of affected websites.
- On March 26 and 27, Myanmar Now (1) and Frontier (2) reported that all four telecom operators received the same directive on March 21 to block the websites.
- On March 30, Telenor Myanmar (3) issued a statement announcing that it blocked access to 221 websites, following the Ministry of Transport and Communications’ directive.
- On April 1, BNI (4) reported that Rakhine based news agencies Narinjara and Development Media Group (DMG) were no longer accessible on MPT and MyTel from March 23 and 24 respectively. BNI also reported that Karen News, a Karen based local news agency, was no longer accessible on MPT from March 26.
2. We, as civil society, believe that the Myanmar Government’s order to block these websites lacks an adequate legal basis and is in violation of international human rights law.
- We are concerned that the government is taking advantage of the COVID-19 epidemic to censor legitimate information and curtail freedom of expression.
- We are further concerned that the blocking of the website does not comply with the three part test prescribed in article 19(3) of the ICCPR:
1) blocking must be clearly defined in the law;
2) blocking must be for a legitimate aim;
3) blocking must be necessary and proportionate to achieve that aim.
- The UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Expression and Opinion, further clarified in its May 2011 report (A/HRC/17/27) that website blocking may only be justified in limited circumstances and in order to deal with content which is prohibited under international law, namely: i. child pornography, ii. incitement to commit genocide and iii. advocacy of racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence. He also stated that decisions for such blocking must be made by a competent judicial authority or body which is independent from any political, commercial or other unwarranted influences and the decision, and made available to the public in a transparent and accessible manner. We are concerned that the government’s directives did not follow these conditions.
3. According to the statement by Telenor Myanmar, they initially refused to block websites where the government provided no adequate legal basis, but Telenor has now done as it was asked to. This raises concerns that the government can order blocking without any lawful reason, and a company cannot refuse because of the consequences from the government.
4. We further note with concern that the blocking of the websites, which include independent media websites from Rakhine state, comes in parallel to a 9-month long internet shutdown affecting 9 townships in Rakhine and Chin state – compounding restrictions on the right to information and freedom of expression of the population in these areas. Civil Society Organizations have been consistently demanding to remove the shutdown. However, in addition to ignoring civil society voices, blocking websites of the news agencies working in these areas is an authoritarian-like violation of the right to the access to information, a basic right crucial to media freedom, democratic transformation, and regions’ development.
5. In light of the above, we call on the Myanmar government to:
- Immediately reinstate all blocked websites with the exception of those for which the authorities can publicly give clear lawful justifications that comply with international standards at the same time
- Public justifications for the directive issued to the operators, that complies with international human rights law
- Immediately reinstate access to the internet in the nine townships of Rakhine and Chin states currently affected by the internet shutdown
- Review and amend the Telecommunications Law, and in particular Article 77 and 78 to ensure compliance with international human rights standards.
- Restrain from resorting to internet shutdown, bandwidth restrictions, as well as blocking of websites under any circumstance, and in any part of Myanmar
6. While we acknowledge that the government has a responsibility to address misinformation relating to the ongoing COVID-19 epidemic, we believe that this can be done in a lawful and right respecting way, in accordance with international best practices.
To this end, we recommend that the Myanmar Government:
- Proactively disseminate up to date information and make services available for media, fact checkers and the public to seek out official information on their own time (websites, hotline, bot)
- Promote the right to information, and be transparent in responding to external requests for information, so as to mitigate the potential for rumours.
- Promote media freedom, recognizing that quality journalism is an essential part of the dissemination of accurate information and countering of “fake news”.