Social media is fuelling resistance

From Damascus to Yemen, authoritarian regimes are alarmed by the impact of the internet and online social media. The past few months have shown the role they can play as tools for organising protests and transmitting news and information. The Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings were above all revolutions by ordinary people facilitated by the internet and social networks. Facebook and Twitter served as soundboxes, amplifying the demonstrators’ frustrations and demands. They also made it possible for the rest of the world to follow events as they unfolded, despite censorship.

Online media has become a key tool for journalists. At the same time, by flooding social networks with news and pictures, Arab revolutionaries helped to ensure that the mainstream international media covered what was happening and thereby put pressure on their governments and on the international community.

These ideas and methods are spreading to many other countries, not only in the Arab world but also to such countries as China and Vietnam. Burma is not immune to this influence, although its military government has been taking preventive measures.

Burma’s junta tries to keep a tight grip on the internet by filtering content and by intimidating and arresting those who dare to speak freely online. The penetration rate is very low: there are about 300,000 internet users in the country but their number keeps rising, as does the number of bloggers. There are now 1,500 bloggers, 500 of whom blog regularly. If you include Burmese bloggers based abroad, the total is 3,000. Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association are now awarding annual prizes to Burma’s best bloggers. Last year, thousands of Burmese netizens voted for their favourite blogs and in late February 2010 in Chiang Mai, Thailand, Myanmar E-Books was declared the winner in the general category and The Power of Fraternity was awarded the prize for the best news blog.

In the months prior to the November 2010 parliamentary elections, some bloggers briefed their compatriots from time to time on the elections and the issues at stake, posting information about the candidates and the electoral laws – vital information rarely relayed by the traditional press, which is subject to stringent prior censorship. Their role was all the more important given that the conditions for a free election were far from present as a result of censorship, intimidation, repressive laws, unreliable internet connections and the arrests and expulsions of foreign journalists.

The junta refused to relax its grip because it feared the destabilising effect. It had learned the lesson of 2007, when it disconnected the entire internet in response to the Saffron Revolution. In October 2010, it began a broad revamping of the national internet platform under which access providers will provide separate services to the population, the government and the military. This means that, in the next crisis, the junta will be able to cut off internet access to its citizens without being directly affected itself.

A few days before last November’s elections, the Burmese internet experienced massive cyber-attacks that caused frequent interruptions in service for several days. The interruptions continued until the elections were over and made it extremely difficult for journalists and netizens to transmit videos and photos and to provide the coverage they had planned.

The government blamed Distributed Denial of Service (DDos) attacks by hackers based abroad but Burmese sources told Reporters Without Borders they suspected government agents of carrying out most of these DDoS attacks to justify cutting off the internet. The target of the attacks was Myanmar Post and Telecommunications, the national internet service provider and, according to the American IT security firm Arbor Networks, their strength was “several hundred times” more than what was needed to overwhelm the country’s terrestrial and satellite networks.

The latest blow came in early March, when the junta announced a ban on services such as Skype and VZOchat that allow internet users to make free or cheap international phone calls using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). Presented as an economic measure, if applied, it would drastically curtail the Burmese people’s ability to call abroad, as conventional international phone calls remain very expensive in the country. The fact that surveillance is not as easy on VoIP as it is on regular phone lines is clearly a factor in the move.

These attempts by the junta to improve its control of the internet and to cut off the population from the outside world are indicative of an increasing disquiet with the political movements that have been rocking the Arab countries and their use of the internet as a tool.

Despite slow connections and the risks involved, Burmese internet users are still circumventing censorship, reading the foreign press, networking on Facebook and simply enjoying themselves online. Even Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is now – finally – connected. She realises that her emails and social networking activities are being closely monitored and that the regime may decide at any time to suspend her internet access. She has reportedly said she has nothing to hide.

All over the world, internet users, cyber-dissidents and bloggers who resist repressive governments are starting to show each other more and more solidarity that crosses national boundaries. The imprisonment of Zarganar and two other netizens in Burma for expressing themselves freely online has been reported and condemned by internet users in many countries. Whether their causes are national or global, the messages these netizens communicate are the ones that will shape the landscape of tomorrow’s internet. Resistance is getting organized; Burmese bloggers are not alone.

Lucie Morillon is head of the New Media Desk at the press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders.

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