Indo-Pacific citizens fighting for internet freedoms
When Myanmar’s military seized control of the country’s democratically elected government February 1, 2021, it methodically began to cut off citizens’ contacts with each other and with the outside world. Blanket restrictions on internet access were quickly followed by an approach called “whitelisting” in which mobile internet access is blocked except for preapproved websites and applications.
It was a way for the military to control the narrative of the coup, and perhaps, to instill fear. “We couldn’t communicate with each other anymore, and people totally freaked out,” one Myanmar resident told Wired UK magazine. The man said he was forced to stay at home and wait for something to happen. “Nobody dared go out. Nobody knew what was happening on the next street or what was happening in another township.”
This censorship is exactly what the United Nations International Day for Universal Access to Information is trying to prevent. The September 28, 2021, annual observance is designed to highlight the role of access to information laws and how they build strong institutions for public good.
Internet shutdowns like the one in Myanmar deny freedom of expression, which in some cases can violate international law, according to a brief filed by the London-based human rights organization Article 19. “Internet restrictions have hindered the organization of anti-junta protests, obstructed efforts to assist individuals threatened by the junta, and restricted the flow of information about human rights abuses,” the brief states. (Pictured: Demonstrators protest the February 2021 military coup in Myanmar shortly before a countrywide internet blackout.)
Myanmar is not alone in the Indo-Pacific when it comes to stifling expression. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), is inarguably one of the world’s most restrictive media environments, relying on censorship to control information in the news, online and in social media.
The Chinese government files libel lawsuits and arrests journalists who refuse to censor themselves. The PRC in 2020 led the world in the number of jailed journalists with 47, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. It was followed by Turkey, 37; Egypt, 27; and Saudi Arabia, 24.
As authoritarian governments tighten their grips on distribution, people seeking freedom are still finding ways to get information. The United States Agency for Global Media (USAGM), for example, oversees public service media networks including Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, the Office of Cuba Broadcasting and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty with combined weekly audiences of 354 million. One of USAGM’s key goals is to deliver uncensored content in censored environments, sometimes through the development of technologies that allow people to access and share content without being detected.
And sometimes, citizens in repressed societies find ways to communicate on their own. Attempts to silence a Chinese university student who drew attention to sexual abuse allegations inspired activists in 2018 to use blockchain technology to dodge censors, Agence France-Presse reported. A blockchain is a shared, encrypted ledger that cannot be manipulated.
The student wrote an open letter accusing a Peking University staff member of trying to intimidate her over a petition she launched urging the school to make public an investigation into a 1998 sexual abuse case. The letter was quickly taken down from Chinese social media, only to resurface on the blockchain service a few days later.
“This is how we use technology to (fight) against brutal tyranny,” said one commenter, while others hailed it as a “historic moment.”
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