PEN Myanmar have been working with civil society organisations and parliamentarians across all states and regions in Myanmar, as well as with the union-level legislative body, to conduct research and advocacy around hate speech and freedom of expression for a number of years. In June 2019, leading a coalition of 18 civil society partners, PEN Myanmar published the third annual ‘Freedom of Expression Scorecard’. It assessed the current landscape for free expression, and examined and scored the state’s performance on six key indicators: laws and regulations; media independence and freedom; digital freedom; information access; freedom of assembly, speech, and opinion; and safety and security. Myanmar scored 6 out of 60, showing regression in most indicators, leading the coalition to make a series of recommendations to improve freedom of speech.
As part of their continued commitment to protecting and advancing freedom of expression, and putting an end to hate speech, PEN Myanmar turned their attention from macro-level laws and policies to investigate how hate speech manifests in everyday speech and practices, and to find out what freedom of expression means to people. They conducted detailed interviews with people in Yangon, drawn from across a range of ages, genders, places of origin within Myanmar, and occupations; and from these they compiled 15-minute videos on each topic. As well as representing a sample of public opinions and attitudes, the videos included an educational message from PEN Myanmar’s President.
The videos were shared across the organisation’s social media platforms, garnering positive feedback, and comments by viewers demonstrating their increased awareness about both these critical topics affecting Myanmar’s road to peace and democracy. The vox pops were also pressed into DVDs and distributed around the country for use in regional and local advocacy and campaigning, and shorter versions of the videos were produced for periodic social media dissemination.
The videos on hate speech and freedom of expression were screened at the Ahnu Thutaythana Festival in Yangon in December 2019, as part of the ‘Reducing inequalities in public engagement in Myanmar’ project, where Sayama Ma Thida gave the keynote speech on the art of searching for truth, and participated in a panel discussion about pursuing interdisciplinary approaches.