How powerful people use criminal-defamation laws to silence their critics

IN OCTOBER 2015, a month before the election that returned Myanmar to a form of civilian rule, a Burmese writer named Maung Saungkha posted a poem on his Facebook page: “On my manhood rests a tattooed/portrait of Mr President/ My beloved found that out/After we wed/She was gutted/Inconsolable.” He was found guilty of defaming Thein Sein, then Myanmar’s president, and sentenced to six months in prison. Mr Thein Sein had suffered no material damage. He served out his term in office without anyone mistaking him for a penis tattoo. But Mr Maung Saungkha believes that in the run-up to the election the government was aiming to “spread fear, curtail freedom of speech and silence activists”.

Governments pursuing such goals have many options. They can press blasphemy laws into service, as those of Indonesia, Pakistan and dozens of other countries do. They can twist the media to their will. In Russia Vladimir Putin and his cronies control the main television-news stations. Or they can simply…

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