By Lynette Lee Corporal
CHIANG MAI, Thailand, Dec 12 (TerraViva) — The new media has created a space for citizens in the Mekong region yearning to give free rein to their desire for expression, bringing about a force never before seen or heard in the wide, wide virtual world and elsewhere.
But authoritarian regimes are not taking this sitting down, not from an emboldened citizenry savouring their newfound power.
Thai journalist and media rights activist Supinya Klangnarong sees the new media as creating a space for civic journalism and people’s expression.
“This is a great opportunity for citizen journalists to engage in the media scenario. As we can see, citizens are very alert and engaged in the new media these days,” said Supinya, vice chair of Thailand’s Campaign for Popular Media Reform and one of the speakers at the ‘Creating Space for Citizen Journalism and New Media’ session held Friday at the Mekong Media Forum in this Thai city.
But while Thailand’s new media users and advocates are enjoying their space in a non-traditional media setting, they are also facing numerous risks and pressures on various fronts, including the government and conservative groups in Thai society, Supinya said.
Studies show there are approximately 12 million Internet users in Thailand today. “The Internet is emerging as one of the most liberal sources of information in Thailand,” she said. The downside is “government censors are exercising much tighter control as well.”
After the 2006 military coup, which ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, tighter Internet regulations were enforced following the passage of the Computer Crime Act. This, said Klangnarong, resulted in thousands of political sites and blogs getting blocked.
“Government efforts to limit a citizen journalist’s audience will give the former a taste of what it feels like to be a mainstream media player,” said South-east Asian Press Alliance executive director Roby Alampay, commenting on the restrictions faced by netizens in the region, especially in a repressive regime like Burma.
“Citizen journalists will be limited by the same problem [of censorship],” said Alampay, who was also a speaker at the same session on citizen journalism and new media.
With Thailand’s new computer crime law in place, authorities can easily trace the identity of a person and his or her Internet activity for the last three months or so using Internet service provider (ISP) records. The country’s computer crime law requires ISPs to keep Net users’ online activities for at least 90 days.
In Burma, it was via ‘online contributors’ — many of them anonymous — of images and news updates at the height of what is popularly known as the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a peaceful uprising of Burmese monks protesting the oil price hike in September of that year, that the whole world learned of the brutal military crackdown on thousands of monks.
“We have never seen that kind of rapid flow of information, images and video clips from within Burma,” recalled Kyaw Zwa Moe, managing editor of the Chiang Mai-based ‘The Irrawaddy’ news magazine, which focuses on South-east Asian and Burma affairs.
That, according to the former political detainee, gave birth to citizen journalism in the junta-ruled Burma.
Kyaw Zwa expressed belief that several factors contributed to the dawning of citizen journalism in his country — new technology, new generation, passion and crucial moments or crisis situations. The Internet technology did not make its presence felt in Burma until the year 2000, he said.
“At the moment, there are over 100,000 registered Internet users in Burma, but there could be more,” he added. The “crucial moments,” coupled by a desire by a ‘silent majority’ for change after decades of military rule, were what pushed citizen journalism to the forefront, he said.
In addition to the Internet, mobile phones, despite their prohibitive price in Burma — a Subscriber Identity Module or SIM card costs about 2,000 U.S. dollars and a mobile phone about 200 dollars U.S. — have also figured in the dissemination of information during the 2007 uprising as well as the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, which killed around 140,000 people.
There are currently 375,000 registered mobile phones in Burma.
That Burma is a “blackhole of information” is a mistaken notion, according to Alampay, recalling the TV satellite dishes that peppered Rangoon rooftops in his first visit to the country’s capital. “There must have been more satellite dishes per square kilometre in Yangon (Rangoon) than in any other Asian city,” he added.
Access to the Internet, while problematic in most cases, is made possible, according to Alampay, by logging on to proxy servers in order to ‘unblock’ international news sites like the BBC, CNN, Google and YouTube, to name a few.
“The government knows it’s a waste of utility and resources to even think that they can control the Internet,” said Alampay, explaining the seeming contradiction between a supposedly highly restrictive government and the freedom to visit proxy servers that let users surf ‘banned’ websites to their hearts’ content.
He added that there is an inevitability of information that, at a certain level, the government will surrender to. “But one thing that Burma has never surrendered is the truth that they can control the flow of information within the society,” he said. Thus, the sky-high prices of — and most often tapped — electronic gadgets, such as mobile phones.
Burmese people must also contend with state crackdowns and arrests, said Kyaw Zwa, citing the country’s Electronic Act, which the government applies to jail bloggers and dissidents. Anyone found guilty of violating this law could be jailed for up to 15 years, he said.
“Of course, any journalist can be killed.” he added.
Notwithstanding the risks involved, Kyaw Zwa said citizen journalism will play a key role in Burma’s 2010 national elections.
“If something happens in the 2010 elections, citizen journalists will come out again to give out information to mainstream media, especially the exiled media. This is why media groups in exile need to expand their networks inside Burma and collaborate with citizen journalists,” he added.