UK proposes free speech bill for universities

In May 2021, the UK government introduced the landmark Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill to encourage and “protect freedom of speech on campuses up and down the country, for students, academics and visiting speakers.”

The bill is set to bring in measures that require colleges and universities to register with the Office for Students, an independent public body and a higher education watchdog in England, to defend free speech and deal with unlawful “silencing.”

“This Bill will ensure universities not only protect free speech but promote it too. After all, how can we expect society to progress or for opinions to modernise unless we can challenge the status quo?” said Michelle Donalan, Universities Minister.

A section of educators and university administrators, however, say that the bill would add another complex layer to university governance. Members of the Russell Group, which represents 24 leading UK universities, argued that existing regulations already allow for sufficient academic freedom and urged the government to be “proportionate” in its planned legislation to promote free speech on campus. 

The Bill requires universities to allow a regulator to issue fines for breaches. 

Some free speech and rights campaigners have raised concerns that the bill might have an “opposite effect” by further limiting what is deemed acceptable in the scope of academic exploration in universities. 

A spokesperson for Universities UK said, “It is important that the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill is proportionate by focusing on the small number of incidents, while not duplicating existing legislation and creating unnecessary bureaucracy for universities which could have unintended consequences.”

Jo Grady, General Secretary, Union and College Union, said that the government is over-exaggerating threats to free speech in order to push new laws through. 

Also read:

Universities could face fines over free speech breaches

The New Campus Free Speech Bill – What Universities Need To Know And Need To Do

The ‘free speech’ law will make university debate harder, not easier

Country Focus – Myanmar

Myanmar’s military launched a coup against the government in power and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on February 1, bringing an end to the hard-won decade-old democracy in the Southeast Asian country. The junta, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has forced the country to be under military regime for the next one year -a move that has prompted rallies and protests by the people opposing the military rule and the overthrow of the government. 

Ever since the coup and the arrest of several officials of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party including Suu Kyi, the country has been in a state of unrest. The NLD had won the majority in the November 2020 election, which was contested by the military-backed opposition. According to a Vox article, the military’s fear of losing “ultimate authority” over Myanmar might have triggered the coup.

Military forces have reportedly killed at least 700 civilians so far. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an international human rights group, has said that the junta has detained around 3300 people, out of which 76 of them have been sentenced. 

The junta’s rampant crackdown on anti-coup protesters and journalists, disruption of the internet and other communication services, and the murder of children have been condemned by human rights organisations worldwide. Reports term the military’s takeover as an “end to the quasi-democracy” in the country. 

A coup; a democracy snatched

The ongoing protests in Myanmar mirror the uprising of ‘88 – a definitive year for Burma (what Myanmar was called back then). It was a period marked by a series of nationwide protests against harsh military dictatorship, restricted freedom, and poor economic opportunities. The military, however, ended the uprising with a severe crackdown on demonstrators and a fickle promise of democratic elections, which eventually happened two years later. 

In 1990, Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide victory in the elections. But the military refused to hand over power to the party and placed Suu Kyi in detention for 20 years and continued with what some call a “disciplined democracy.” A new constitution, which allotted 25% of the seats to the military, was adopted in 2008. 

Consequently, in the 2015 general elections, Suu Kyi won the majority and her party was elected to power. Myanmar’s recognition among other countries, particularly the West, grew – sanctions were lifted, and opportunities improved. Although the country was being led by a democratically elected government, the military’s shadow was always perceived to be behind it. This was apparent went Suu Kyi, put on trial for the Rohingya genocide in 2017, defended the killings of the minority groups by security forces. 

The day of the coup, February 1, was supposed to be the first session of the parliament after Suu Kyi’s NLD was reelected to power and set to start its second term. However, the military made sure it did not happen. BBC quotes Aye Min Thant, a former journalist, as saying “there may be another reason for today’s action: embarrassment on the part of the military.”

Media Freedom Violations

Following the coup, the military also inflicted extensive damage on Myanmar’s media. Licenses of five independent media outlets – Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7Day News, all of which reported on anti-coup protests – were revoked. 

“Revoking the license of independent media outlets that have been providing vital information about ongoing events in the country is a draconian measure that amounts to direct censorship and breaches fundamental rights and international standards, to which Myanmar has committed”, Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Institute, said.

On February 27, six journalists – one Associated Press journalist, one freelancer, and four journalists working for Myanmar media – were arrested for covering anti-coup demonstrations and charged under sections that could have them in jail for upto three years if convicted. 

The junta attempted to stifle all critical voices by arresting dozens of public figures – actors, models, social media influencers, and so on. Actor Paing Takhon, who has a huge online following, and beauty blogger Win Min Than were detained by security forces. Takhon was said to have participated in protests. 

The Guardian reported that the military has been publishing the names and photographs of popular figures in daily wanted lists on TV and in the state-run newspaper. 

The police charged Wai Moe Naing, a prominent opposition leader, for murder, unlawful assembly, wrongful confinement, abduction with intent to murder, and incitement. 

More recently, Danny Fenster, an American journalist and the Managing Editor of Frontier Manipur, was detained from the Yangon airport shortly before he was due to board a flight to Kuala Lumpur. 

According to reports, at least 83 journalists have been arrested since the coup on February 1. 

Also read:

Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar democracy icon who fell from grace

As Myanmar Opens Up, A Look Back On A 1988 Uprising

Images from a ‘Day of Shame’ in Myanmar

‘She Just Fell Down. And She Died.’

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