What effect has digital technology had on efforts to defend and improve press and broadcasting freedom in Burma?
‘Press freedom in Burma’ – for journalists in the country this phrase is an oxymoron.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF), has ranked Burma 174th out of 178 countries surveyed for its Press Freedom Index in 2010. For the second year in a row, the only countries Burma was able to rank ahead of in the poll were Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. None of them necessarily known for their liberal mindset towards tweeting about the latest misdoings of the government.
RSF even singled Burma out as ‘internet enemy’. In their latest report they say: “They are brazenly taking advantage of a highly repressive piece of legislation, the Electronic Act of 1996, which pertains to the internet, television and radio. (…) By arresting these internet users and journalists, the junta is trying to intimidate potential critics and impose self-censorship on its citizens.”
All articles for any publication must be approved by the infamous Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, headed by a military officer.
Journalists in Burma have received draconian jail sentences for reporting information that were rather uncomfortable for the regime. In January 2010, DVB reporter Hla Hla Win received a 20-year sentence for violating the Electronic Act. Now she faces a total of 27 years in jail; her assistant, Myint Naing, faces seven.
It comes as no surprise that the web in Burma is fiercely monitored by the state. ‘Monitoring’ in this case means that its speed heavily slows down in periods of political tension. In 2007, during the crackdown on the uprising, the junta even pulled the plug on internet services completely.
We are the people
However, this could not keep people from getting their message to the world beyond the Burmese borders. The importance of bloggers and ‘citizen journalists’, using all kinds of digital technologies, was almost painfully obvious; as few to none Western journalists were able to remain undercover within the country.
In the follow up to this post, I will focus on how Burmese journalists manage to work around the junta’s grip of steel.