Internet freedom in Myanmar: A curse or an opportunity?

With Myanmar’s recently acquired internet freedom, questions arise about hate speech and incitement to violence online.

Two years ago Myanmar abolished internet controls [AFP/Getty Images]

Just before former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled from Tunis in January 2011, he addressed his citizens one last time in a seven-minute speech in which he promised “rejection of all forms of censorship”. Sure enough, within just a few hours, the internet – which had long been heavily censored – was open and for the first time Tunisians were able to access whatever they wanted to freely.

Such a transition is rare. As Reporters Without Borders’ recent publication on “enemies of the Internet” shows, once a country institutes controls on the internet, it rarely goes back. China, Iran, Uzbekistan, and many other nations on the list get worse every year, not better. But there are exceptions: The Maldives and Nepal, two of the first countries to ever shut down the internet, long before Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak did so, have reversed some controls, as has Morocco.

Like Tunisia, Myanmar has recently emerged from the clutches of dictatorship and is slowly taking its first steps toward democracy. Nearly three years ago, after decades of military rule, the country began a transition toward civilian rule. A year later, prior restraint of the media was abolished and the internet – once among the most restricted in the world – opened up.

Today, the Burmese can access whatever they want online. Exiled news organisations have moved into Yangon, their online presence now accessible from within the country. Webmail and social media, once blocked, are now increasingly popular despite low Internet penetration. Facebook is extremely popular, home to more than an estimated 80 percent of the country’s million or so internet users.

The trouble with hate speech

But such freedom has come with a price. Nearly two years ago, the New York Times reported that “hateful comments are … flourishing online about a Muslim ethnic group, the Rohingya”. Two years later, as the conflict between the Rohingya (an ethnic Muslim minority unrecognised by the state) and Buddhists has only grown worse, so too has the rhetoric online. On social networks, calls for the Rohingya to be expelled (or worse) abound.

101 East – The Lady on the Lake

On Facebook, propaganda abounds, as do accusations of hired commenters, paid to sway opinion on the pages of local publications. But, as some have pointed out, so does moderate speech calling for an end to the violent incitement that has plagued social networks in Myanmar.

In a recent speech in Yangon, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi addressed a crowd of international journalists, discussing the country’s media – which she dubbed only partly free – and stressing the responsibility journalists have towards truth. At the same time, when asked a question about the plight of the Rohingya, she demurred, pivoting to comment on the importance of the rule of law. She did not once utter the word “Rohingya”.

Her comments were part of what makes discussing free expression and the media in Myanmar so complicated. While it is often argued that the best response to distasteful speech is in fact more speech, the fact that even an opposition leader can’t bypass a strong taboo to discuss such a controversial issue means that such a strategy is unlikely to work. And yet, censorship often has the undesired effect of pushing dangerous speech underground, making it even more difficult to respond to.

Dr Cherian George, a professor and scholar of journalism, has written extensively about the regulation of hate speech. Looking at the ways in which many traditional societies – including Myanmar – regulate speech, he notes that “the low threshold for censorship – in the name of maintaining harmony – can be used by states to silence dissent. Laws that ban the wounding of feelings also empower the least tolerant groups to set the tone for the whole society”.

At the same time, notes George, the failure to protect minority rights often “translates into impunity for right wing groups that attack minorities”.

It is for this reason that open discussion, and an open media, are imperative. If even Aung San Suu Kyi, the defiant opposition leader whose actions and rhetoric earned her a Nobel Peace Prize, is unable to speak openly about the ongoing violence in Myanmar, then one cannot expect the government to do so. And without strong leadership to mitigate the conflict, the role falls to the fourth estate.

Against regulation       

At the same event at which Aung San Suu Kyi spoke, blogger Nay Phone Latt – who was imprisoned for four years under the military regime – drew the important distinction between hate speech and incitement to violence, articulating that while regulating the latter is reasonable, the former is more subjective.

Indeed, what constitutes “hate speech” differs greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. While some countries – such as Chile, Canada, and the Netherlands – have enacted broad laws that criminalise speech that intends to incite hatred against protected groups, other countries take a looser approach. India, for example, imposes restrictions on speech that harms “public order, decency or morality”, while Poland’s laws punish those who offend religious sentiment.

On a global internet, such regulations silo users. And when access to information – albeit often undesirable information – varies from country to country, inequality grows. One might argue, of course, that access to hate speech isn’t a human right, and would be correct. However, hate speech is merely the first – never the only – content to fall to state censors. In any case, censoring hate speech – rather than solving the underlying problems that led to its proliferation – is unlikely to have a lasting effect.

Jillian C York is a California-based writer and free speech activist, currently serving as the Director for International Freedom of Expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. Her work is centred on the intersection of technology and policy.