Citizen Journalists Help Keep World's Attention on Burma

According to one human rights organization, technology-enabled citizen journalists work where there is no regular press, risking their lives to report the repression and atrocities of the Burmese army so that the world knows about these.

by / December 3, 2007
Burned Burma villiage



A burned village in Burma.


On November 20, in the largest offensive since 1997 in Karen State, north of Burma, hundreds of soldiers from the Burma Army killed over 370 men, women and children and displaced over 30,000 people, most of whom are now hiding in the jungles nearby.

Given that the military dictatorship in Burma has been attacking its own people for decades, killing thousands and leaving millions displaced, this is certainly not an isolated incident for those living in Burma or the hapless citizens of the Karen state. However, had it not been for the dozens of volunteers working for Free Burma Rangers, this report which yet again reveals one of the many brutal sides of Burma's ruling military junta, would have never been known to the world.

"We work in areas where there is no press, and often our reporters, risk their lives to report the atrocities of the Burmese army and their movements so that the world gets to know about them," says Nate Collins one of the officials of FBR.

A Thailand-based non-government organization, FBR's "mission is to provide hope, help and love to internally displaced people inside Burma" and using a network of indigenous field teams -- most of whom are volunteers -- that also provide medical, spiritual and educational resources to the displaced Burmese communities. FBR's biggest contribution to the plight of the downtrodden Burmese people is its fearless reports on human rights abuses, casualties and their humanitarian needs.

"The more the information comes out about what's happening in Burma, the clearer is the picture for the international relief organizations for them to respond with what is needed and where help is needed," says Collins.

This is the world of citizen journalism, which has finally arrived in Burma -- although to be accurate, not all these "citizen journalist" are actually citizens of the country once known as Burma and now called Myanmar.

In this age of technology-enabled seamless and instant reporting, citizen journalism is hardly new. But the fact that Myanmar's military junta -- considered as one of the world's most repressive regimes -- has completely curtailed freedom of speech and expression means that here citizen journalism is not just a growing phenomenon. It is also often the only source for free, independent information flowing from that country.

Increasingly, more people get to know what's going on here, not from the state-owned and controlled Burmese media, but from the dare devil reporting of entirely amateur reporters.

Using modern technologies like cell phones, laptops, and even satellite phones at times, hundreds of these volunteers -- many basically rookies -- are now on the news frontline, capturing images and reporting on the demonstrations and counter-attacks against the Burmese people. Their reports are regularly transmitted to dozens of blogs and sites out of the country.

Most brave and dodge the deadly military junta knowing full well that if they get caught, they will either be imprisoned for weeks or even shot. "Our sources are very aware of the risks, like arrests and tortures," says the acting news editor of Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based news agency that operates from Chiang Mai, an area near the Burma-Thai border. Irrawaddy claims most of its almost 200 stories a day come from rookie journalists. This includes not only budding journalists, writers, photographers and artists but also monks, politicians, students, diplomats, NGO workers, businessmen and even housewives. "Yet they march ahead with the responsibility of revealing the truth, strongly believing in practicing their right of freedom of expression -- possibly the only way to free Burma from its dictators."

Indeed, for over fifty years, the dictators of Burma have waged war against their own civilian population. It is a war backed by a military

that has 400,000 soldiers and is supported by 50% of the nation's budget. The Burma Army's methodology is to conduct large-scale offensives, followed by consolidation of territory gained and expansion of control. Then it launches new attacks.

The army exerts its control over the ethnic minorities by not only using physical force but also by literally cutting them from the outside world. The government commands near-complete control over broadcast and print media. For instance, all domestic radio and television stations are state-owned and controlled. And although there are more than 100 print publications now privately-owned, the Ministry of Information limits licensing to media outlets that agree to print only approved material and that submit to vigorous advanced censorship by its Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.

According to the latest report of OpenNet Initiative, although the Burmese government prevents access to communication technologies as a way to limit social mobilization around key political events, what makes the Burmese junta stand out is its apparent goal of also preventing information from reaching a wider international audience. OpenNet Initiative is a (primarily US-based) collaborative partnership that identifies Internet filtering and surveillance and promotes public dialogue about such practices.

The Myanmar government has "already established one of the world's most restrictive systems of information control, and had been extending its reach into the Internet despite the fact that less than 1 percent of the population has online access," says ONI.

Its testing conducted in late 2006 demonstrated that the two Burmese Internet service providers, Myanmar Posts and Telecom and BaganNet/Myanmar Teleport filter content, extensively focusing on independent media, political reform, and human rights sites relating to domestic issues.

In recent months, efforts to bring the Internet under even tighter control have intensified following the protest started in August by Burmese monks. These snowballed into country-wide protests that were met with a strong action by the army. This culminated not only in the complete shutdown of Internet access on September 29, but also in the "outage" of many popular Burmese news sites like Mizzima News, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and Irrawaddy. This also included international sites like CNN and Reuters.

Still, despite this crackdown, filter technology has been unable to restrict the bi-directional flow information and communication for many Burmese, especially the educated, urban elite, says ONI. "The Burmese have begun receiving information from overseas via basic Internet services such as blogs, chat, forums, and email. As a relatively cheap communication tool, much of the value of Internet is based on the availability of overseas Web sites and Internet services. These internationally hosted services also offer a means to communicate more securely."

"The regime was shocked to see the extensive world media coverage through citizen (or participative) journalism," says Yeni of Irrawaddy. "The regime did not expect that the real-time reports, pictures and video clips through the Internet on the demonstrations and brutal crackdown would draw so much of wide international attention. That's why I think that death and fatalities [post the August crackdown] were dramatically less than [the one in] 1988."

So besides revealing the atrocities of the military junta, how is citizen journalism helping the oppressed Burmese? "We have found from the reports that we have sent out, there is more awareness and more help," says Nate Collins of Free Burma Rangers. "Indirectly, it also gives the oppressed there the knowledge that they are not forgotten and there are people outside who are fighting for their cause."

But most importantly, within a heavily controlled media environment, citizen journalism has provided at least a limited means for free expression. As noted by a Burmese blogger, people from Burma were always asking for information as well as requesting help and assistance from the outside world. But few of their voices ever reached the world at large. Now, at least, their cries are not getting lost in a continuing vacuum of government repression. .

Indrajit Basu is the international correspondent for Government Technology's Digital Communities. Photo courtesy of FBR.