After seizing energy within the early hours of February 1, one of many first issues Myanmar’s navy did was to take management of significant info and communication channels. Following the unfastened tenets of what I’ve beforehand dubbed the “authoritarian playbook,” the navy was nicely conscious that management of knowledge flows can be key in the event that they have been to realize management of the nation with out interference.
Earlier than the digital period, taking management of the knowledge channels would primarily require a take-over of mainstream media. In our time, nevertheless, it requires rather more. Confronted with a restive inhabitants that has embraced cellular applied sciences and social media at a pace unmatched by every other nation within the area, the Myanmar navy additionally needed to minimize off entry to the web and telecommunications. With no entry to their common communication channels or their most trusted information sources, folks have been left utterly at midnight about what was taking place till information of the coup broke on the military-controlled tv channel Myawaddy Information.
Though web entry and cellular connections have been restored later that day, the navy junta – recognized formally because the State Administrative Council (SAC) – has retained a decent grip on info flows. Since February 3, the nation’s telecom corporations have been ordered to quickly block entry to Fb, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger “to restrict social unrest.” (Twitter was added the next day.) In the meantime, for greater than per week, entry to the web has been shut between 1 a.m. and 9 a.m. Whereas the media has to date been in a position to work roughly unhindered, a number of warnings have been issued by the Ministry of Info and Sen. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing encouraging the media to co-operate with the federal government and warning it to not incite the inhabitants. Extra direct restrictions are within the making, posing a extreme menace to folks’s entry to info and freedom of expression.
One factor is evident: Myanmar’s navy, or Tatmadaw, is aware of what it’s doing. Its monitor file supplies proof of its capabilities not solely in controlling, but in addition manipulating, info flows. The fixed shifts between tightening and releasing the grip on communication flows is designed to create a degree of frustration, confusion, and concern among the many public, a well known technique by which authoritarian governments sign to the general public that they’ll do no matter they please. Comparable messages are despatched to impartial media and journalists by oblique threats – and more and more additionally direct threats – of potential sanctions in the event that they misstep.
What we’re witnessing is in some ways a reversal of the restricted progress that has taken place since Myanmar’s political reforms started in earnest 10 years in the past. Previous to the reforms, Myanmar had one of many world’s strictest censorship regimes. The one present free and impartial media labored in exile and needed to depend on the bravery of in-country stringers to cowl the actions and rule of the navy regime. The web and cellular entry have been uncommon and most info got here through military-controlled channels. Unbiased journalists and editors lived in fixed concern, and lots of spent lengthy durations behind bars.
It was due to this fact seen as a landmark occasion when the Press Censorship Board was dissolved in 2012, marking an finish of pre-publication censorship. Within the following years, the media setting blossomed: dozens of recent shops have been established, exiled media personnel returned to the nation, and new business associations and organizations have been shaped. Myanmar instantly rose on the lists and indexes of worldwide press freedom, and lots of had excessive hopes for the brand new period. Though removed from all expectations have been met and the progress of the primary years was by no means matched in later years, many journalists and editors now concern a severe regression.
But, some issues can’t be reversed. Myanmar’s media are right now much better organized than at any level up to now. Armed with digital communication applied sciences, media shops have a wider attain and a firmer foothold. Equally vital is the truth that the navy now guidelines over a essentially completely different inhabitants in comparison with 10 years in the past. Not solely is it a inhabitants that has lived with better levels of freedoms for the final decade; additionally it is a extra tech-savvy inhabitants that has grown accustomed to utilizing on-line platforms. The resistance each on-line and offline within the weeks for the reason that coup is proof of simply that.
The navy, although, didn’t fall behind both. By following authoritarian traits globally, they’ve up to date their playbook to match the present challenges. A software that has change into significantly common following the unfold of the coronavirus in 2020 is “lawfare”: the usage of legal guidelines to blot out info that undermines the authoritarian state narrative. Following that development, the SAC on February 6 introduced a draft Cyber Safety Regulation containing a number of restrictions on the forms of content material which may be disseminated on-line. Equal to what has been noticed in related forms of legal guidelines within the area, imprecise wording on the kind of content material deemed to be in violation would enable the junta to clamp down on activists, residents, and media making just about any criticisms of the navy.
Whereas the Cyber Safety Regulation has presently been placed on maintain following a large outcry, amendments have been made to different legal guidelines to help the SAC in its efforts to manage each info flows and the civic protest motion. As an example, adjustments have been made to the Penal Code and Prison Process Code which broaden the scope of the crimes of excessive treason and sedition and create new, vaguely worded offenses referring to “sabotage” and the “disruption” of navy or authorities officers. Different legal guidelines goal anybody deemed to be inflicting “concern” or knowingly spreading “pretend information.”
One other and extra sinister software is on-line info warfare. Right here it’s all about making a disrupted info sphere the place disinformation can unfold and sow mistrust between completely different teams in society. The quite a few web disruptions and shutdowns of Fb have finished simply that, creating an info deficit wherein rumors and disinformation can run wild. This has been noticed in a number of circumstances over the past weeks. When a written assertion signed by Aung San Suu Kyi was launched on February 1 on considered one of NLD’s verified Fb accounts urging folks to “absolutely oppose the navy coup and resoundingly resist towards it” folks didn’t know what to imagine. Was this a transfer by the navy, posting by the NLD’s social media accounts? Was the navy deliberately spreading “pretend information” to drive out activists and NLD supporters? Or was it certainly the NLD issuing a name for common resistance? Though the problem was resolved some days later when the NLD launched one other related assertion, it created numerous confusion within the days instantly following the coup.
Extra confusion was noticed through the weekend of February 6-7, when social media, the web, and cellular connections have been taken down. Rumors that Aung San Suu Kyi had been launched circulated, prompting some folks to start celebrating within the streets. Different rumors claimed the detained president to be lifeless. Though each rumors have been false, folks had nowhere to confirm the knowledge and due to this fact didn’t know what to imagine. The sensation of navigating in darkness can each be terrifying and numbing – exactly the extent of management you wish to have as instigator of a coup.
Moreover, it poses an infinite threat for folks to leaping to conclusions based mostly on false assumptions. Final week, rumors began circulating on social media of Chinese language troopers being flown in from Kunming to help the navy in putting down protests. Proof was supplied within the type of pictures of navy personnel with folks primarily judging their nationality based mostly on pores and skin complexion and peak. Once more, the rumors have been false however till they have been absolutely debunked, there was a really actual threat that the stress would materialize into retaliations towards Myanmar residents of Chinese language descent.
The examples above present simply how vital entry to related and dependable info is in a time of disaster, and simply how simply moods, and thus the flip of occasions, can shift on account of disruptions in info streams. When folks’s entry to info is hampered, it elevates the danger of additional destabilization.
It’s tough to foretell precisely which chapter and instruments from the authoritarian playbook the navy will use subsequent. With the inhabitants persevering with to voice its displeasure with the coup, we have to put together for the worst. The navy has already begun utilizing extreme drive towards demonstrators with two folks being killed and several other injured in Mandalay on February 20. Unbiased journalists and media are anticipated to be subsequent in line. They’re presently meddling with the navy’s makes an attempt at controlling info streams and shaping a coherent narrative that legitimatizes the coup. With menace ranges rising and journalists more and more being focused at protests, arrested, and detained, we’re sadly seeing the primary indicators of self-censorship. Myanmar journalists are more and more feeling compelled to go underground and lots of are strongly contemplating returning to exile operations. With out the mandatory help, this democratic pillar could crumble, additional difficult the inhabitants’s entry to dependable info when it’s wanted probably the most.
Emilie Lehmann-Jacobsen (@emilietjacobsen) holds a PhD in media research and works as program improvement advisor on Asia at IMS (Worldwide Media Assist).