Freedom of expression, internet freedom and independent journalism
In 2015 – at election time in Myanmar – Maung wrote a critical poem about the president and posted it on Facebook. Maung was imprisoned for over six months because the poem was judged to be defamatory. He was one of the very first victims of the Telecommunications Law under the previous government. The Telecommunications Law was introduced in 2013 and since then it has been used repeatedly to restrict freedom of speech and expression. Soon after his release from prison, Maung began fighting for freedom of expression. He is active in the public debate on the protection of human rights. He organises demonstrations and gathers evidence and information on restrictions on freedom of expression.
Maung Saungkha: ‘Poetry and literature are the driving forces that made me want to become an activist.’
Voice to make and Voice to hear
On 15 January 2018 Maung founded an activist organisation called Athan, which aims to promote freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Myanmar through training and demonstrations, as well as by lobbying for legislative changes. Maung: ‘The Myanmar word ‘athan’ means ‘voice’. We came up with this name to promote individuals’ right to freedom of expression. Our slogan is: “Voice to make and Voice to be heard”. It’s not only about your right to express, you also need to listen to others’ voices. And the authorities must not interfere in this process of voicing and hearing.’
Monitoring, documenting and reporting
Athan is a reliable source for up-to-date information about freedom of expression in Myanmar. For example, Athan documents the number of cases brought under the Telecommunications Law, the Law Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens and the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, as well as the number of journalists prosecuted or sued. Athan does three kinds of work: monitoring, documenting and reporting. Its monitoring extends beyond day-to-day monitoring of risks of violation of freedom of expression. It also keeps track of changes to legislation and of the processes for dealing with long-term issues. By documenting its findings, Athan turns observation into evidence and provides a quantitative overview of the situation.
Athan is also involved in protests and online campaigns. In 2018 Maung organised protests in support of two imprisoned Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were eventually released after more than 500 days. ‘We will keep denouncing the unfair jailing of journalists. We will keep reminding the public about their plight,’ said Maung. The organisation also has an educational branch which started with freedom of expression training and now offers a wide range of courses.
Human Rights Tulip Award Myanmar 2018
Maung Saungkha and his organisation Athan were awarded the local Human Rights Tulip on 11 December 2018 by the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands for their outstanding contribution to the promotion of freedom of expression in Myanmar. ‘This young courageous human rights defender is one of the most outspoken advocates of freedom of expression in Myanmar,’ noted the embassy in an announcement. ‘With his organisation Athan he advocates reform of restrictive legislation, such as the anti-defamation section of the Telecommunications Law. We applaud Maung Saungkha for his systematic and evidence-based approach to promoting freedom of expression and for his advocacy work. But most importantly, we support what he stands for: a pluralist society where we not only have the right to express our views, but also learn to listen to others.’ Athan used the prize money to hold workshops in different parts of the country to raise awareness of the importance of freedom of expression.
Athan continues to document and research cases, organise protests, campaign, collaborate, participate in national and international panels and meet with government officials. It is also involved in other forms of advocacy and educates people with the aim of promoting legal reform. ‘In order to achieve more freedom of expression, we advocate the amendment of old rules and laws that obstruct such freedom. For a better future for Myanmar we try our best to change these laws,’ said Maung.
Freedom of expression, internet freedom and independent journalism
Freedom of expression is an essential part of a properly functioning democracy and a free society. People in general, and journalists in particular, should be free to express themselves both online and offline. But in many parts of the world freedom of expression is under threat. Journalists play an important role as an independent source of information and watchdog. They must be able to do their work independently and in safety. The Dutch government supports the independence of journalists and media organisations worldwide in a variety of ways, with a particular focus on prevention, protection and prosecution.
Human rights are rights that apply worldwide, to all people, in all places, at all times. They protect the dignity of every human being. You have human rights because you are human, regardless of your gender, ethnicity, religion or political opinion. The Netherlands strives to protect and promote human rights all over the world. This is a priority of the Dutch government’s foreign policy. The Netherlands employs a wide array of actions and initiatives geared towards strengthening human rights. To uphold your right to express your opinion. To live your life, if you're different. To adhere to your own religion. To go to school if you’re a girl. Human rights will thrive if we stand up for them, together with many other countries. By supporting local organisations. By not letting violations go unpunished. By incorporating human rights into trade treaties. By continuing to defend them.
Human Rights Tulip
The Dutch government supports human rights defenders and organisations. With the Human Rights Tulip, the Netherlands provides recognition and visibility for the winners and emphasises the legitimacy and importance of their work as human rights defenders. Each year, the Dutch government awards the Human Rights Tulip to a person or organisation that promotes human rights worldwide in innovative ways. The winner receives a bronze sculpture and €100,000. This money allows them to continue and expand their work. The prize money comes from the Human Rights Fund.
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders are individuals or organisations that seek to protect human rights. Through their work they promote and defend globally recognised human rights and fundamental freedoms by peaceful means. They are able to generate change and improve the lives of many, but they often have to contend with serious threats and violence. The Netherlands supports human rights defenders so they can continue their invaluable work effectively and safely. Their voices and their stories must be heard. They are audacious people from different countries, walks of life, and backgrounds. They can be local leaders, journalists, lawyers, environmental activists, or many other things. But they have one conviction in common: that freedom is fragile, and universal rights need protection.