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Burma Protest Showed Web Effectiveness, Frailty

Protest Images from Burma Showed Web Effectiveness and Frailty

Media coverage of the pro-democracy protests in Burma depended largely on the bravery and technical know-how of the country's few citizens who had access to the Internet and cellular phones. However, Burma's military rulers also showed the challenges bloggers and other citizen journalists face under authoritarian regimes when they effectively isolated the country from outside observers by shutting down Internet service providers (ISPs) and cell phone towers.

Bob Dietz, Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told USINFO the movies, still photos and reports emanating from Burma in August and September were "the best example of that sort of thing we've seen so far," adding that although only about 1 percent of the Burmese population has access to the Internet, "the people on the ground certainly knew what was going on and were ready to make use of the technology to report it."

Burmese media are subject to heavy state censorship and foreign reporters tend to have little access to the country, Dietz said. Until the protests occurred, the outside world had very little visual evidence of what was going on inside the country. For that reason, observers around the world were amazed when images began to appear.

"The pictures were very good and very dramatic of monks in their robes and civilians working together, striking images from a country which is really one of the most heavily censored in the world. But those images came out and people were wowed or more impressed than they would have been in a place where you're accustomed to seeing visual information," he said.

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Dietz added that those taking the risks to capture and distribute the images specifically were targeting the outside world because they did not themselves have access to the Web sites on which their material would be posted.

"[W]hile they certainly were aware that the focus of the world was on them, they weren't privy to all the video and blogging information that we had. That was directed toward the outside world in many ways to try to drum up support and make us aware of what was going on," he said.

The bloggers and citizen journalists succeeded in getting images out despite severe restrictions on the number of people who had access to the Web, and the Burmese government's use of monitoring software to filter and control information.

An Iranian blogger told USINFO that countries can use filters to block access to specific Web sites by assembling a database of their Web addresses.

Like Burma, Iran uses its Internet service providers to track which sites people in the country are visiting, and the blogger said that with the millions of different sites visited daily, the regime's attention is drawn more to those which are the most popular. The best strategy for bloggers is to encourage more to join their ranks in order to distribute the number of hits, while at the same time distributing the same information to all sites.

Ultimately, the Burmese opposition's activities were so effective that the military junta decided to unplug the country's only two ISP cables to Rangoon and Mandalay, an action that Dietz described as a "really drastic, drastic solution."

"It's an indicator of how much in a corner the generals felt they were, in resorting to that. It was an indicator that they were not going to mess around any more," he said.

In addition, because people were using their mobile phones to send photographs and movies, the junta shut down the cellular towers to close down the phone connections. Because satellite telephone access is not available in Burma, only the more easily monitored land lines were left in use.

The generals effectively restricted the flow of information, Dietz said. "Pretty soon [the opposition] wound up relying on people running information back and forth across the border to Thailand," including trying to access cellular signals across the border. However, the area is very remote and heavily monitored, he said.

The only possible solution that remained was to resort to "very old forms of moving information," such as saving information on compact discs (CDs) or thumb drives and smuggling them across the border into Thailand. But Dietz speculates that, for the time being, new material from Burma will be rare because most are wary of carrying evidence that can be found on them, especially near the border.

"If you're going to be searched and they find something like a CD or find any physical evidence, you can be sure it's going to be scanned and that you will be detained until it's resolved just what is on this storage device, no matter what it is," he said. "To be caught with that kind of stuff is sure to wind up in a very nasty prison sentence that can go on forever."

But Dietz said the suppression of free expression has been continuing so long in Burma that communication among groups along the country's borders with Thailand and India and the Burmese exile network "remains strong."

"It's this people-to-people capacity to move information one way or another, either cryptically or openly, that has really been the resilient backbone of the Burmese opposition inside and outside of the country," he said, noting their flexibility in resuming older forms of moving information when the government shuts down phone and Internet services has been an asset.


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