Internet Freedom Stalls after Prosecutions, Govt Interference

By Sean Gleeson 29 October 2015

RANGOON — Four years since the beginning of political reforms, a nascent move towards internet freedom in Burma has stalled in the wake of military and political pressure on users, according to a new report from Freedom House.

The US-based human rights watchdog’s annual ‘Freedom of the Net’ report, released on Wednesday, said that authorities had taken a heavy-handed approach to the publishing of online material during protests, clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups, and in the lead-up to the Nov. 8 general election.

“Myanmar’s failure to remove restrictive punishments for online content occurred in the context of a deliberate government campaign to marginalize balanced and dissenting voices,” the report stated. “Tactics included economic pressure on independent media, manipulative political commentary, and tacit encouragement of nationalistic hate speech against the Muslim minority.”

Covering the period between June 2014 and May of this year, Freedom House noted that despite recent liberalization of the sector, a number of military and government-linked figures retained significant financial stakes in telecommunications companies.

In the months following the report period, the country has seen a number of high profile arrests under the country’s telecommunications laws.

Chaw Sandi Tun, 25, is before the courts in Irrawaddy Division over a post which implied that military personnel had refashioned their uniforms to match the clothes worn by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, while 43-year-old Kachin peace activist Patrick Kum Jaa Lee has been detained for sharing a picture of a man stepping on a portrait of Burma Armed Forces chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing.

Critics of the prosecutions pointed to the government’s failure to take action over social media posts that incited religious hatred, along with arguably defamatory posts authored by figures connected to the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Burma ranks on par with Thailand on the report’s annual scale of internet freedom. Following that country’s May 2014 coup, Freedom House noted an increase in the number and severity of sentences handed down for insulting the Thai monarchy, while access to some foreign media outlets and the websites of political activists and human rights NGOs has been blocked.

Vietnam, the worst performing regional country on Freedom House’s index, had 29 online activists imprisoned by the end of May, with a further eight arrested or charged for “abusing democratic freedom to infringe on state interests.”

Globally, Freedom House said that internet freedom had waned for the fifth year running, with 14 of the 65 countries surveyed enacting new internet surveillance laws and a number of governments using arrest, detention, intimidation and torture to coerce users to delete content.