Bloggers in Burma write at great risk

Blogging in Burma is nearly as dangerous as protesting on the streets against the country’s military-run government. So it will come as no surprise to those who closely monitor Burma’s heavily restricted media and censored Internet that CPJ has ranked the country as the worst place in the world to be a blogger. 

The Burmese government demonstrated clearly last year that it will brook no dissent on the Internet when it arrested and sentenced blogger Nay Phone Latt to 20 years and six months in prison in 2008, on vague charges that his postings violated the Video and Electronic Act.

Under a military dictatorship since 1962, Burma routinely suppresses freedom of expression among its people. All news outlets inside the country fall under the strict and comprehensive surveillance of the state’s censorship board and are also held in check by various publication laws. Prior censorship is imposed on all local media and is strictly applied against any news that might cast the government in a bad light.

The Internet is one of the few places where Burmese can receive independent news and views, albeit at their peril. That’s particularly true for bloggers, many of whom have dared to post outside news or their own views on local events. Various laws restricting the right to information and expression have been promulgated and if violated can lead to long jail terms for journalists, bloggers, and Internet users.

For instance, failure to register a computer or online network can result in a prison sentence of between seven to 15 years, on top of a substantial fine. In every Internet cafe in Burma there is a written notice warning Web users that they are not allowed to browse “illegal” Web sites, including exile-run Burmese news services and various other foreign news agencies. (Mizzima News is among those on the government’s black list of banned sites.)

Meanwhile Internet cafe owners are required to take regular screen shots of what their customers view and report on demand their records to the authorities. Less than 1 percent of Burma’s population has access to the Internet, most of them through strictly monitored cafes in major cities such as Rangoon and Mandalay.

That’s because the cost of a private connection is so prohibitive. A personal broadband connection with Burma’s main ISP, the state-run Myanmar Teleport, costs US$1,300 plus additional monthly fees while the average Burmese household’s monthly income is around US$40. To surf the Internet at a privately run but government-monitored cafe in Rangoon costs around 30 to 50 U.S. cents per hour.

Despite these repressive laws and prohibitive costs, many Burmese–especially among the younger, tech-savvy generation–use proxy servers to evade the censors and blog on various topics, including the local political and economic situation. It’s unclear exactly how many Burma-related blogs there are in and outside the country, but several have already earned a reputation for providing news and commentary not carried in the censored local media.

Bloggers are definitely under fire, as CPJ’s survey rightly indicates, but they nonetheless represent the seedlings of an emerging independent media in Burma.

Soe Myint is the editor of the New Delhi-based Mizzima News, an exile-run Web site known for its hard-hitting reports on neighboring Burma’s military-run government. 

(Reporting from New Delhi)