Burma Ranked Second to Last in Internet Freedom
While utilizing information and communication technologies (ICTs) for its own business and propaganda purposes, the Burmese regime aggressively regulates access to the Internet by its citizens and punishes them for online activity that is seen as detrimental to the junta’s security, according to the Freedom House report, which surveys the current ICTs situation and trends in Internet freedom in Burma and 37 other countries.
“There has been gradual improvement in access to ICTs over the past three years, but the [Burmese] junta has also aggressively targeted users who are involved in anti-government activities or have contact with foreign news media,” the Washington-based information watchdog said in its report.
Cyber attacks, politically motivated censorship, and government control over Internet infrastructure are among the growing threats to Internet freedom, the Freedom House report said.
“These detailed findings clearly show that Internet freedom cannot be taken for granted,”said David J. Kramer, executive director of Freedom House. “Nondemocratic regimes are devoting more attention and resources to censorship and other forms of interference with online expression.”
Freedom House, a non-governmental organization, was founded in 1941 and conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights. The organization publishes an annual report each year.
“Freedom on the Net 2011” follows a pilot edition that was released in 2009. The report evaluates Internet freedom in each of the 37 countries based on barriers to access, limitations on content and violations of users’ rights.
Countries that received a ranking of Not Free : Thailand, Bahrain, Belarus, Ethiopia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, Tunisia, China, Cuba, Burma and Iran.
There are two main Internet service providers in Burma: Myanmar Post and Telecommunication (MPT) and Yatanarpon. According to the Freedom House report, the military regime controls the Internet infrastructure in two ways: total shutdowns and temporary reductions in bandwidth to slow the flow of information.
“Yatanarpon Teleport blocks almost all Burmese exiles and foreign Burmese-language media outlets and blogs, as well as the sites of dozens of foreign newspapers and television networks,” said the report. “It also blocks the websites of international human rights groups.”
The report also highlighted the fact that only one percent of Burma’s population of 53.4 million are Internet users and the over 520 registered cyber cafés are located mainly in a few major cities.
Although there are now over 10,000 blogs by Burmese nationals, only 52 percent of Burmese bloggers write from Burma; the rest write from abroad.
Since its 2007 crackdown on the “Saffron Revolution” led by Buddhist monks, the military regime has more strictly enforced the ownership of cyber cafés and required them to monitor users’ screens and cooperate with criminal investigations.
“The censorship officers in my country are paranoid.” Khet Mar, City of Asylum Pittsburgh’s writer in residence in interview with Sampsonia Way.
Both online and off-line censorship and information controls increased surrounding the November 7, 2010 national elections, and Internet connections were interrupted between late October and the end of December 2010.
The junta also set up a “Blog Supervising Committee” in every government ministry in late 2007, and instructed civil servants to write pro-government blogs to counter outside bloggers and foreign or exile media, and to attack democracy activists like Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many leading exile websites—including The Irrawaddy, Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma, and New Era Journal—have been temporarily shut down by hackers since 2008. All of the attacks to date have been distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks.
Military sources inside Burma said that the junta has dispatched officers to Singapore, Russia, and North Korea for information-technology training, and that these officers are assigned to monitor e-mail messages and telephone conversations and to hack opposition websites. China also provides training and assistance, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The regime has promulgated three laws regarding ICTs: the Computer Science Development Law that made possession of an unregistered computer modems and connection to unauthorized computer networks punishable by up to 15 years in prison; the Wide Area Network Law; and the Electronic Transactions Law, under which Internet users face prison terms of 7 to 15 years, and possible fines, for “any act detrimental to,” and specifically “receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to,” state security, law and order, community peace and tranquility, national solidarity, the national economy, or national culture.
The new Constitution, drafted by the junta and approved in a highly-criticized 2008 referendum, does not guarantee Internet freedom.
The Freedom House report found that Estonia had the greatest degree of Internet freedom among the 37 countries examined, while the United States ranked second. Iran received the lowest score in the analysis and Burma received the second lowest.