Cyber war breaks new ground

Fake articles were posted by a hacker on a popular exiled Burmese news website over the weekend in what may be a new tactic in the Burmese junta’s cyber offensive on independent media.

One of the stories, published on the Thailand-based Irrawaddy site on Saturday, reported the death of popular Burmese singer May Sweet, while a second, and more divisive, piece was titled ‘Exiled Media outlets lose out on funding thanks to NLD’, referring to the opposition National League for Democracy, led by the revered Aung San Suu Kyi.

The article suggested that the NLD had encouraged funding cuts for exiled media that have forced a number of organisations, including the Irrawaddy and DVB, to cut programmes and fire staff. It quoted LSE academic Maung Zarni, who occasionally writes for both organisations, as questioning the Irrawaddy’s spending policies.

The story, which the Irrawaddy quickly flagged up as fictitious, went so far as to include made-up quotes from the organisation’s chief editor, Aung Zaw, who allegedly said that “Thanks to her [Aung San Suu Kyi’s] request Irrawaddy lost over 1 Million US Dollars in funding and DVB lost 500,000 Euros from their annual budget”.

The real Aung Zaw told DVB however that it is “clear that someone who has intelligence on the ground…has been assigned to write fake articles to cause damage to us; it’s very clear”. He added that he did not believe the perpetrator was based inside Burma.

The article also followed an editorial line consistent with that of the Burmese junta, which favours portraying exiled Burmese as living a lavish existence paid for by Western governments: “Only a fifth of the donated funds to the exiled media groups such as DVB and Irrawaddy were used for their intended purposes while the rest were being used to fund the chief editors’ lavish lifestyles.”

The executive director of DVB, Aye Chan Naing, added that it also fits with tactics that are seen in publications like the junta mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar newspaper, which he says have been “intentionally trying to sow misunderstanding”.

The attacks, if as is widely assumed were directed by the Burmese junta, present further evidence that as far as media freedom is concerned, nothing has changed since last year’s controversial election. These attacks have taken place whilst Australian national Ross Dunkley, the former editor of the Myanmar Times, the only in-country newspaper with foreign funding, stands trial on a number of charges.

Aye Chan Naing, who co-founded DVB in 1992, added that the attacks were “clever” in that they had appeared to the untrained eye as the real thing, and were intentionally divisive. He noted however that an increased number of donations were made to DVB since the attacks took place.

Aung Zaw believes that the specific attack was a result of the Irrawaddy’s coverage of corruptive practices of senior junta members and its commentary on the new parliament, which he said “definitely provoked a lot of anger in Naypyidaw… This person has been assigned to counter us”. He added that he had spoke to the NLD on Sunday and that they “were crystal clear who was behind this”.

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