“Hate speech” committee threatens more censorship

A new drafting committee for a “hate speech” “law” that includes much broader political “crimes” is another sign of the military’s intention to restrict freedom of expression in the long term.

According to information received, on 21 May 2021 the military established a new drafting committee with a mandate to change an old draft “hate speech” bill first developed by the USDP government and then re-written by the NLD. The military’s internal notification includes a deeply concerning order that the scope of a new “law” should include not only religious and ethnic “hate speech”, but also political and social “hate speech”.

“Hate speech” is best defined as an expression of discriminatory hate towards people. “Hate speech” laws, where they conform to democratic standards, are intended to protect the safety and social equality of marginalised groups with “protected characteristics”, including for example, women, ethnic minorities, members of religious groups, or the disabled. “Hate speech” is best addressed through educational and social programmes promoting values of tolerance, with criminal laws only used against severe hate speech such as incitement or targeted threats.

There is no such thing as political “hate speech”. Political expression is an expression of a political opinion, often against a political opposition, and is a fundamental democratic act. Sometimes political expression can be heated or even offensive to the political interests involved, but it is about changing politics and the decisions that control people’s lives. In a democracy, leaders must accept that they are going to be criticised, sometimes unduly, and those who try to prevent political expression should be regarded as dictators.

Including political “hate speech” within the scope of the law is clearly intended to criminalise opposition to the coup.

Both the USDP and NLD governments developed a series of drafts of a “hate speech” law, which many have been demanding in order to address discrimination. Each of those drafts was seriously flawed, focusing mainly on punitive punishments rather than promoting tolerance and inclusion. Although political “hate speech” was not included in previous drafts, FEM and other organisations raised serious concerns that those drafts did include vague definitions which meant that if adopted the law could be misused to censor political expression. The NLD also issued an internal directive on “hate speech” which was also seriously flawed.

Since the coup began, the military has already undermined the rule of law, created new crimes to restrict the right to freedom of expression, and violently punished opposition voices. Given that the military is already detaining people arbitrarily, and already has a wide range of undemocratic laws to punish their opposition with, the adoption of yet another “law” may indicate a much longer term intention to embed censorship.

This statement does not include recommendations that would indirectly legitimise any unlawful authority. Nevertheless, all stakeholders should act where possible to raise awareness of and address the military’s further attacks on freedom of expression.