Burma remains among the world’s worst countries for internet freedom, despite signs of an opening in its draconian media environment, a leading press freedom watchdog warns.
Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres – RSF) said in its annual report released yesterday that the President Thein Sein administration “is off to a troubling start”, having tightened restrictions on internet cafes in May last year, two months after it came to power.
But there have been encouraging developments, including the release of several jailed bloggers, such as Nay Phone Latt, and the unblocking of news websites considered subversive by the former junta.
Burma has long occupied the tail end of internet and press freedom indexes, but the government has taken steps towards loosening its watertight censorship. A new media law is currently being debated in parliament that could overturn many laws that effectively criminalise independent journalists, although the specifics of the bill remain unclear.
The watchdog organisation yesterday also endorsed a campaign to mark World Day Against Cyber-Censorship that encourages internet users to go to the Cyber Tag website to pin a message of protest on virtual embassies in the 10 countries listed as ‘enemies of the internet’.
The group claims that one in three people worldwide do not have access to unrestricted internet, and notes that around 120 people in 60 countries are in jail for using the internet “to express themselves freely”.
Burma’s internet penetration ranks among the lowest in the world, at some two percent of the entire country.
A so-called upgrade of the country’s internet service shortly after the general elections in 2010 is claimed by media watchdogs to be used to reinforce surveillance and repression of national web users.
A joint report in November that year by RSF and Burma Media Association said that the Hantharwaddy National Gateway, Burma’s main link to the global internet, had come under the exclusive control of Burma’s military. Moreover, the introduction of an additional ISP means that the government can now shut off the civilian service during times of political unrest whilst keeping its own system online.