TOPICS > Nation

Myanmar Government Attempts Information Control with Internet Block

September 28, 2007 at 6:20 PM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: For days, the world has watched events unfold in Myanmar through video and still images sent via the Internet, much of it shot by local citizens and activists — not professional journalists — and ending up on television and in print in the U.S. and elsewhere.

One outlet: a group of exiled activists based in a Thai border town, who had plugged into an extensive underground network of secret sources inside Myanmar. Using digital technology — e-mails, the Internet, Skype, satellite and mobile phones — they’ve provided instant eyewitness updates.

EXILED BURMESE ACTIVIST: Those people are really incredible. They know that they will be arrested or they will be killed if authority find out. Also, I really thank to the high-tech, also many activists, they try to know how to use high-tech, so therefore really now the world can see what happened in Burma.

JEFFREY BROWN: In London, a Burmese-born blogger has written about events in his native country. He used to get about 50 visitors a day; recently, he got more than 20,000.

KO HTIKE, Blogger: Now I’m downloading a photo that’s sent from one of my friends who’s living here. But yesterday, I missed this photo, and then they weren’t able to send it straight to me, so they send it to the other person, one of my friends. And one of my friends, now he’s free and he sent it to me.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in Norway, an opposition TV station has been broadcasting reports smuggled out of Myanmar.

REPORTER: We have about 30 or 40 undercover journalists inside Burma. We have our own way of getting footage out of Burma, within the day, for example.

JEFFREY BROWN: Even today, amid the crackdown on the Internet by the government, opposition TV broadcast footage of yesterday’s shooting of a Japanese photojournalist. Kenji Nagai was killed while documenting a protest with a video camera and mobile phone.

One percent Internet penetration

JEFFREY BROWN: And for more, I'm joined by Brian Joseph, director for South and Southeast Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy, a private congressionally funded organization that supports human rights and freedom around the world. He was in Myanmar earlier this year.

And Dan Gillmor, director of the Center for Citizen Media, an advocacy and education organization, he's author of the book, "We Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People."

Brian Joseph, starting with you, I have read that the Internet penetration in this country is less than 1 percent. So who puts out this information? How are they able to do it?

BRIAN JOSEPH, National Endowment for Democracy: Well, that's absolutely right. There's only 1 percent Internet penetration in Burma, which contrasts with Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries where it's much higher. But if you look at the absolute number, something like 300,000 people actually have access to the Internet. That really is a significant number of people inside the country who have access to some information.

Many Web sites are blocked, but everybody has -- they have ways around them. They can use proxy servers. And through that, you can reach a very, very broad sector of an educated, urban population. And these centers are not just in Rangoon, but they're also in Mandalay and some of the other cities of the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how well-organized are they? You've worked with some of these media organizations. They're there because the mainstream media is so controlled?

BRIAN JOSEPH: That's right. There's absolutely no independent media that operates above ground inside Burma. There's no independent newspapers, no independent TV, no independent radio. All of these media groups that we're talking about today, you focused on one earlier, the Democratic Voice of Burma, these are groups that are exiled Burmese who have begun to build up media organizations.

Most of them have been in existence for close to 15 years now. And so through really hard work, tireless work, these journalists have been able to build up networks of informers, reporters, stringers inside the country. And through that, they're able to get the information out through a variety of different sources. And in a sense, they serve as surrogate information sources, surrogate media, for all of the listeners and readers inside Burma.

Citizen journalism in Myanmar

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dan Gillmor, we've certainly seen examples of so-called citizen journalism in this country. Is it a surprise to you to the extent to which we're seeing it in a country like Myanmar?

DAN GILLMOR, Center for Citizen Media: No, not at all, especially given the motivation that people have to get their story out, to tell the world what's happening in these horrific events. People want to tell. They want to bear witness. And now they have the tools in widespread ways to do so.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then looking at the world looking in at them, there are organizations willing to take what is sent their way, correct?

DAN GILLMOR: Absolutely. This is a kind of symbiotic process where media of all kinds end up feeding each other in various directions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dan Gillmor, staying with you, there were these reports today of the government trying to shut down the Internet. Now, what does that mean? How does a government shut down the Internet?

DAN GILLMOR: My understanding from the people at the OpenNet Initiative, which is a project at Harvard and some other universities, is that there are two ISPs, Internet service providers, in Burma, and that a lot of people do their Internet access at Internet cafes.

That's a fairly easy chokepoint for a government for getting information in. It's not as good a chokepoint for preventing people from getting it out, although clearly the speed at which they're getting it out has slowed down.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there ways for people to get around those strictures?

DAN GILLMOR: The incoming data is going to be hard for a while, just because of this general crackdown, but Internet access in general in Burma, as I understand it, is quite heavily restricted anyway in terms of the content allowed in.

Nonetheless, as your other guest has pointed out, this is a fairly porous kind of system there and other places. But I think the purpose of the government is to keep it from large numbers of people, and I think they've done that fairly well.

Crackdown only marginally effective

JEFFREY BROWN: Brian Joseph, have you been able to tell yet how effective their crackdown has been?

BRIAN JOSEPH: It's marginally effective. We've had reports of people who used to get 100 to 200 e-mails or communications from people inside Burma are now getting 50 or 60. But it's still a significant network.

And let's not forget, these are all journalists and activists who have worked in one of the most repressive societies in the world for the last 20 years to build these structures and these networks. And so they have many, many different ways of communicating.

Internet is a very, very recent introduction to Burma. Before that, you had underground newspapers. People used the telephone. There are many, many different ways to communicate from within Burma to their friends and colleagues in the international community.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you're saying they're ready to adjust?

BRIAN JOSEPH: Oh, absolutely. One of the most interesting parts of this or pieces of this protest this year is this is a very sophisticated, quite well-organized opposition movement. You have seen it start with an '88 generation. These are young activists who started in 1988, who were released in 2004 and began to rebuild this student movement. It then quite quickly grew into a movement led by monks. But it's a very well-organized, fairly well-coordinated movement. And it's going to be very, very difficult for the government to stop it by simply shutting down the Internet.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, in '88, the world did not really see what was going on.

BRIAN JOSEPH: That's right. In 1988, there was virtually no interest, no information about Burma. It was a closed country, and it was hard for tourists to get into the country. There was very little information, very little access. And you also did not at that time have a well-known democracy movement with broad international support, as well as a very active exiled community that's been essential to getting the information out of Burma.

Vetting the information

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dan Gillmor, looking at this from the perspective of the news organizations that take in this information, once it comes out of Myanmar, is it vetted? What kind of issues does it raise about verification, about the basic facts that are coming to us?

DAN GILLMOR: Enormous issues. And the major professional organizations are clearly vetting what they're seeing. We do have a case now of certain things coming through that we cannot completely verify right at the beginning. But I think people are using good judgment in this.

What we have to ask people to do generally is to exercise some level of skepticism about all media -- in this case, I think people are wisely predisposed to trusting what they're seeing from there -- and ask people to understand that things have not been completely vetted or not produced by the people on the ground for professional news organizations.

But this is very valuable stuff we're getting, and I don't think that people are being misled in any sense.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brian Joseph, if you look ahead now -- I mean, presumably both sides, everyone there, knows that the whole world is watching. So do you see this communications revolution as ultimately having some kind of impact on a society that has been so closed for so long?

BRIAN JOSEPH: I do. But I also see perhaps the biggest impact is actually on and for people inside the country. The world is watching what's happening inside Burma, but perhaps more importantly this information flows out of Burma, but then it's all put right back into the country.

So you now have a network of short-wave radio, you even have a Burmese-language satellite TV that's broadcast from Norway. And all this information filters back into the country, and it reaches throughout the country. And in a sense, the people from inside Burma use the outside media to educate everyone else inside their own country.

And that presents a very, very different challenge to the government than they faced in 1988, when there wasn't the international attention and the exile media, the international media interest. The short-wave radios were not there. You now have a media environment where people have short-wave radios. There are satellite dishes throughout the country. And so people really do have access to much, much more information than they did in 1988.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Brian Joseph and Dan Gillmor, thanks very much.

BRIAN JOSEPH: Thank you for having me on.

DAN GILLMOR: Thank you.