Prison threat for Facebook ‘defamers’

Burmese found guilty of defaming individuals and organisations on the social networking site Facebook risk up to five years in prison under the Electronic Transactions Act, domestic news has warned.

While internet penetration in Burma remains among the lowest in the world, at around two percent of the population, the Weekly Eleven journal said that “there is a growing number of people using Facebook”. Numbers of these, it continued, are “[lowering] the dignity” of others by “uploading photos and writing notes on the website”.

Many of the laws enacted by the former junta are notoriously malleable, with scores of journalists, photographers and bloggers given hefty prison sentences for breaching the Electronic Transactions Act. So-called illegalities include anything from emailing footage to exiled media groups, to writing material critical of Burma’s leaders.

The Weekly Eleven article said that “victims of Facebook defamation can also file a civil suit at the court to ask for compensation”.

Statistics for Facebook usage in Burma are not available, but as the accessibility of internet in the country increases, more and more of the younger generation are cottoning on to social networking. Even opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi said after she was released from house arrest last year that she was interested in opening a Facebook and Twitter account.

The Thailand-based Irrawaddy Magazine said in an op-ed yesterday that news of the rioting by Burmese fans during the recent World Cup qualifier in Rangoon spread via Facebook, which allowed “people to express their feelings about the disgraceful occurrence”.

It quoted one user who commented that the rioting “[reflected] the manner of the country’s leaders, who have practiced violence for decades”.

Whether it is online criticism of the government, which keeps a close eye on internet users in Burma, that triggered the warning is unknown – the Weekly Eleven did say that “business firms” had been victims of defamation, but made no mention of the Thein Sein administration.

Global Facebook users now number over 700 million, or more than 10 percent of the world’s population. While the US and Canada account for nearly half of this, less than four percent of Asians are users, despite the region accounting for nearly half of total global internet penetration.

Indonesia has the highest number of Facebook subscribers in Asia, with nearly 39 million, followed by India, Philippines and Thailand.

The power of social networking as an organisational tool was brought to global attention during the outbreak of popular uprisings across the Arab world in the first half of this year, when news and information circulated the internet at alarming speed.

Lucie Morillon, from the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, told DVB at the time that the 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”.

The same watchdog released a report last year claiming that what the government had billed as an ‘upgrade’ to its internet system would in fact increas surveillance of users, who are now required to go through more security checks.

The ability of civilians living in tightly controlled environments to mobilise the public via Twitter and Facebook is believed to have unnerved the Burmese government, which has in the past shut down the country’s internet system during sensitive times.

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