Thu 3 May 2012
Filed under: Interviews
Greater freedom of expression in Burma has seen it move from the second worst country in the world for press censorship to number seven on that list according to a new report from the Committee to Protect Journalists.Similarly, Burma is ranked 187 out of 197 countries in the world and 38th out of 40 Asian-Pacific nations in this week’s Freedom of the Press 2012 report from Freedom House.
While it may be an improvement it still shows there is a long, long way to go.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Danny O’Brien, the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Internet Advocacy Coordinator
O’BRIEN: Well Burma still sits at the very bottom I think of internet access and internet availability, as well as censorship. It’s a country where the population has to depend on cyber cafes for access and that access is extremely controlled. There has been an improvement since the recent relaxation by the junta there. But there’s still an extremely long way to go. And what we haven’t seen is the same kind of relaxation of grip that we’ve seen in the rest of the media and other parts of the communication system that’s seen in the rest of the world.
COCHRANE: Now you’ve described Burma’s online system as effectively three different sort of levels or self-contained systems, can you explain for us how that works?
O’BRIEN: Sure so over the last few years Burma has attempted to convert their network into one where there was one or two ISPs, or internet service providers, to one where there’s three. One is the military internet service provider as it were, one is the consumer internet service provider and one is for the rest of the government. And I think the assumption has to be there that this is not just a sort of organisational division, this is a division that enables one network to work when the others are shut down. Burma’s one of the few countries, of which Egypt is the most famous example, that’s actually successfully managed to shut down its entire internet during times of unrest. And I think the plan here is to be able to do that in a much more finely grained way so the military gets all the benefits of the internet, but the rest of the population remains in the dark.
COCHRANE: What about the situation as the country opens up economically? Do you think that international telecom firms will come in and change the situation in Burma?
O’BRIEN: Well I think it needs more than just international corporations. There are now sadly plenty of countries around the world that have come to an equilibrium of sorts where companies are providing telecommunications equipment, but the state itself continues to hold its draconian grip on what people can see and what is revealed to the government about what they’re seeing. And I think my fear here is that while Burma is definitely liberalising and seeking to make the world know that its system is liberalising, they still have their eyes on what we might call a Chinese model of careful control of internet communications.
COCHRANE: And are they getting direct advice from the Chinese on how to run internet censorship programs?
O’BRIEN: I wish I knew. There’s certainly been some evidence that the Burmese, national sympathetic parts of Burma have been getting sort of outside help when it comes to conducting attacks on the very rich exiled Burmese media. There’s certainly a lot of technology that’s been thrown at those groups that we don’t expect to have come out of just solely that country. But whether it’s China or whether it’s Russia or whether it’s simply freelancers, cyber mercenaries as it were, it’s very hard to tell.
COCHRANE: In China a lot of internet users quite successfully get around the “great firewall” and all kinds of limitations put up by the authorities. Is there any sign of that kind of sophisticated navigating of the internet in Burma?
O’BRIEN: Yes there’s a great deal of evidence of that. In fact cyber cafes, which are actually predominantly used by both tourists and monks, young monks who want to keep in contact with what’s going on in the rest of the world. I’ve heard reports that the instructions to get around the great firewall of Burma are actually pinned up on the wall, and there was a crackdown on this a few months ago. So Burma’s one of the countries such as Turkey where the knowledge of how to circumvent what censorship there is, is fairly well known. But it’s well known amongst a very small group of people, which are the people who actually have internet access. And Burma like a number of poor countries facing a dictatorship have a double problem, which is if the government wants to control what you read and what you can write online, the easiest way of doing that is to limit and retard the economic development of the internet.
COCHRANE: Danny just briefly, does it actually help having tourists using these cyber cafes as well as locals in terms of providing I guess sort of a cover for internet use?
O’BRIEN: I think it does actually, I think one of the great drivers of the internet across the world was the desire of tourists. And people were able to fund cyber cafes with actually quite fast bandwidth in many remote spaces before the average domestic user had in many developed countries. And I think the added value in countries like Burma and Cuba is that there’s also pressure on those particular venues to provide open access to the whole of the internet.