Keeping the web open, for better or worse

07 April 2015
Keeping the web open, for better or worse

Whether it is a disappearing umbrella, a questionable dinner party for the well connected, a fake rape report, the wrong wrecked motorcycle, or a ‘hip’ Buddha graphic in poor taste, if it is put online in Myanmar, eager netizens will soon be circulating it throughout the nation and around the world. That’s the nature of the medium.
During the last few months, postings on the internet in Myanmar have generated controversy over issues ranging from the Information Ministry’s definition of accuracy to a debate over the parameters of freedom of expression when it involves revered images.
What goes online can be funny, annoying, stupid, hateful, revolting or obscene.
Take, for example, the over-eager official at the Ministry of Information who decided to “PhotoShop out” of an image, an umbrella being held by a male attendant to shelter from the sun the Deputy Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, Dr Su Su Hlaing. That doctored photo was shared around and commented on by Facebook users, causing red faces at the ministry. Then there were the images published on Facebook and circulated widely of the swish dinner party held by relatives of a former government officer at the Secretariat building in Yangon that is regarded as hallowed ground because it is where independence hero General Aung San was assassinated. The images sparked a furor over the bad taste of the partygoers. Even Information Minister U Ye Htut chipped in with an expression of dismay on that one.
Perhaps the most widely publicised of inappropriate Facebook postings in recent times involved the promotional flyer for a drinks night at the short-lived VGastro Bar that last month saw two Myanmar men and a New Zealander sentenced to jail for two-and-a-half years for insulting religion. The offending image, of the Buddha wearing headphones, created an outcry and was quickly removed and an apology published on the bar’s website. But the deletion of the image and the apology did not prevent the trio from being arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced.
The internet sees the good, the bad and the ugly. Many welcome the opportunity to express opinions online about an issue or subject of concern, claiming it is changing the world for the better. Sometimes it is. Consider some of the online campaigns that have highlighted and given prominence to social justice issues. They include online petitions over the Keystone XL pipeline issue in the United States or the internet’s role in helping to circulate a 2012 video about Joseph Kony, the Ugandan leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
There is lively online discussion in Myanmar about the nation’s social and political challenges. Important events and incidents that may have remained unpublicised in the pre-internet era can no longer be hidden.
We are not advocating the censoring of this free flow of information, except threats to national security, terrorist sites or child pornography. Governments do occasionally have success in blocking “offensive” sites, but they often prove to be short-term solutions until determined internet users find a way around the firewalls.
China with its “great firewall” is a high profile culprit. Thailand is proving a close second. The United States and Britain seek to block “offensive” Islamic jihadist recruitment sites. Yet India only last week threw out a provision of its IT Act under which a person could be arrested for posting online content deemed “offensive”. This victory for online freedom, however, is muted by other sections of India’s Penal Code under which people can be held to account, particularly if their post incites communal tension.
The citizens of the world need to look towards a code of etiquette and practice for internet use that includes guidance for children and young people. There is a need to encourage users to behave in an “acceptable” way. Children need to learn what is right, wrong and sensible online. Adults who post hate messages or obnoxious material deserve to be shunned.
The internet needs to develop a responsible, constructive user culture. For the sake of the free flow of information and for better or worse, the web must stay open.
This Article first appeared in the April 4, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.
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