Myanmar’s civil society needs support now more than ever

Ensuring access to reliable information, the regulation of social media and protection of journalists are crucial to stop the rolling back of years of hard fought progress in Myanmar following last Monday’s military coup. Danish and international support to civil society in the country must be sustained.

The Nordic countries and not least Denmark have played an important role for democratic development in Myanmar over the last decade. Media development has been a key element of this involvement, as the ability of independent media to provide the population with reliable information is also a reflection of how strong and free the civil society in a country is. 

Ten years ago, Myanmar had one of the world’s strictest censorship regimes. The only existing free and independent media worked in exile outside the country. IMS had been working for years with these exiled media and was thus well placed to step in and support the needed reformation of an outdated media sector at odds with the new democratic developments, when asked to do so by the transition government. Over the next few years, together with our Swedish partners Fojo Media Institute, we were and continue to be involved in extensive and fundamental reforms to pave the way for free and independent media.  

The major efforts invested and gains made over the last decade by NGOs, civil society and the international community in building democratic institutions and inclusive, independent media must not be abandoned. It is vital that we maintain the support for civil society. This will require the continued backing of media and human rights activists who face a difficult time following the military coup.  

Fertile ground for disinformation  

When Myanmar’s military took over on 1 February, Myanmar’s citizens lost access to their regular go-to platforms for information. The military took control of several national media outlets, and international and domestic TV channels, including the state broadcaster, went off air. The military then announced a one-year state of emergency via the military-owned television channel Myawaddy News.  

Many Burmese are therefore seeking alternative platforms for news. In principle this means going on Facebook. At the time of writing, telecom companies in Myanmar have also been ordered to block access to Facebook and related platforms like Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp in an attempt to avoid calls for protests in the streets.

Thirty million of Myanmar’s 53 million people are Facebook users, a largely positive development that has given people the opportunity to communicate openly and access news. However, on the downside, media literacy and critical consumption of information in the country is low, allowing disinformation optimal conditions to flourish and leaving Myanmar vulnerable to the consequences of this. The Rohingya crisis in 2017 is an extreme example of how disinformation on social media fanned the flames of conflict and led 860,000 Rohingyas to flee the country to Bangladesh.

Those in power – not just in Myanmar, but in the region – are well versed in using social media to their full advantage. When barring people’s access to information via the internet or mobile networks as was the case earlier this week, propaganda thrives and can add to further destabilizing the country. Myanmar is not only in the midst of a coup, but also a pandemic and an economic crisis. Even if Burmese information consumers have gained more knowledge about fake news and taking on a more critical approach to the content they read on social media, the need for independent information from non-state and non-military-controlled media is vital to have alternative means to verify information. 

International accountability mechanisms  

The good news is that countering disinformation is on the agenda of the international community. On Tuesday, Facebook removed the military’s official channel from the platform, but more is needed to break their monopoly on information flows and to stop the spread of disinformation. The primary aim of disinformation is to create confusion and sow distrust of the established, independent media. IMS’ task ahead is therefore two-fold: to support public interest media that produce reliable and relevant content while at the same time working to address disinformation. Together with the Danish Embassy in Yangon, IMS has been working to strengthen cooperation between the country’s best fact-checking organisations and independent media in the run-up to elections in 2020 and during the first few months of the Covid-19 pandemic. Importantly, the tech industry must step up and make a difference. We encourage the Danish government and international community to push for a global mechanism that will hold to account those spreading disinformation.  

Uphold support to civil society   

At the moment, no one knows where this will lead or what the military’s plans are for media in the country. But the prospects are not good. On the positive side, the usual authoritarian handbook tool of blocking access to the internet to maintain control of information has not yet been employed and independent journalists and media are still able to do their reporting. However, several media outlets have been ordered to pause their reporting and the military’s newly appointed Minister of Information on Tuesday, 2 February, requested that the media not contribute to civil disobedience or to organising protests. How they intend to enforce this request remains to be seen, but as things stand, we are observing an increased self-censorship and moderation of content amongst Myanmar media. It is also likely that several journalists may feel forced to go underground – not only due to the recent developments, but also because they may have criticised the military in past coverage.  

With increasingly silent independent voices, a democratic backslide invariably follows. This is an unfortunate trend also apparent in other neighbouring countries in the region. Asia is the region that has seen the most notable decline in press freedom over the last year and Myanmar is now next in line to see this pillar of democracy crack. This will not only have major consequences for the people of Myanmar, but for democratic currents in the region.  

Now more than ever, it is important that the international community stands with journalists and human rights activists in Myanmar. We must uphold the support for media and civil society, who are working for human rights, providing reliable information for the people of Myanmar, safeguarding the many areas of democratic progress gained in the last decade.