The Debate

When public debate heats up Mizzima reviews the landscape of opinion and prints the most poignant quotes in favour and against.

This week: Should the government be involved in monitoring social media sites?

Background

Communal violence erupted in Mandalay on July 1 after a rumour from a blog was published on the Thit Htoo Lwin website and then posted on the Facebook page of the Venerable U Wirathu on June 30.

After three days of unrest in which two people were killed and buildings and vehicles damaged, Thit Htoo Lwin apologised for publishing the rumour. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, the Venerable U Wirathu said his Facebook page only shared “right information, nothing exaggerated”.

On July 8, an official from the President’s Office said an agreement had been reached between the government and Facebook to monitor the activities of users posting comments in the Myanmar language.

Against

Sithu-Aung-Myint“There will be bad consequences if the government uses the riots as an excuse to control media freedom. We do not support the banning of facebook, but the government needs to find a way to tackle it, because the widespread distribution of hate speech is happening in communities, not only on social media”

Sithu Aung Myint, columnist, in The Irrawaddy


“We can only act to maintain the rule of law, this is a matter for the ministry of Communications and Information Technology, we don’t investigate these matters, we don’t have the knowledge and we don’t have the capacity.”

Police Brigadier-General Win Khaung, spokesperson, Myanmar Police Force


While the burmese government should be working to stop the spread of hate speech on social media, it must ensure that it does not regress to the days of censorship. There is a fine line between protecting individuals from hate speech and silencing legitimate political debate – the question is whether the burmese government can distinguish between the two. If the government is serious about addressing hate speech, it should actively support initiatives that promote racial and religious tolerance both online and offline. Hate speech will not go away simply by censoring avenues for its expression, burma needs to address the root causes of ethnic and religious animosity, including fostering interfaith dialogue between
muslim and buddhist communities.

Hannah Hindstrom, Minority Rights Group International


David-Mathieson“A government that is clearly bent on intimidating the media and has a deplorably weak record on speaking out against hate speech and racism should not play any role in monitoring social media. Any restrictions should be pursued by an independent regulatory body to ensure that free speech is guaranteed and that any instigators of violence are prosecuted. The Press Council should have a role to play in monitoring social media, but not a government which would likely misuse any monitoring as a creeping return to censorship.”

David Mathieson, Human Rights Watch


Thaung-Su-Nyein“The government shouldn’t be allowed to use this as a tool to oppress or suppress dissent or a public voice or the media. So there are definitely some concerns that it might lead to that, and we have to be careful.”

U Thaung Su Nyein, chief executive officer, Information Matrix


THE HORSE’S MOUTH

“Every social website, facebook, google+, Twitter has its own specific terms and conditions. These terms include forbidding riots, violation of the law, personal attacks or abuse based on race or religion.

Facebook has procedures to report violation of these terms but in myanmar, the majority of users use the Myanmar ‘Zawgyi’ font, which makes it difficult to assess when an account is making personal attacks, spreading hate speech etc. To monitor this more effectively, Facebook has assigned a member of staff who is an expert in the Myanmar language.


For

Wirathu“This is a good move, particularly if they watch over both sides and take serious action over any wrong-doing. The spread of hate-speech and defamatory text and photos will be reduced. To those people that question whether this infringes people’s human rights, I say that freedom should not include the freedom to insult others. It is a misuse of that right.”

Venerable U Wirathu


“Rumours can spread through other channels but people chose facebook because it is fast and effective. It is important that we take action to curb these rumours, if this method can prove effective then the safety of society will be greatly improved.”

U Min Oo, chairman, Yangon Region Computer Professionals Association


“In a developing country like ours, social networks like facebook make things challenging for the country as it moves towards democratisation. We can see that facebook is being used as a political weapon.”

U Zaw Htay, director of President’s Office, in Wall Street Journal


Nay-Phone-Latt“Facebook and the government have come into some sort of agreement; it is unclear exactly what they have agreed upon. The individual monitoring of people that spread hatred is necessary, but not full time monitoring of the population.”

Nay Phone Latt, founder of Panzagar, which campaigns against hate speech


It is true that when the riots in mandalay occurred we spoke to facebook and asked for their assistance. We asked for their help within the guidelines laid out within their own terms and conditions, which is why they agreed to help. They would not have responded positively otherwise.

We did not ask facebook to do anything that would violate the liberty of its users and facebook would never do such a thing. Users will continue to enjoy the same personal freedoms that were promised by facebook when they signed up to the site.

We have come to a mutual agreement with Facebook, this will not be a panacea to the inter-communal violence but we have witnessed that incidents have already decreased.

This is a short-term solution. In the long run people must become responsible users of facebook. In addition we have been working with IT organisations in the hope to hold forums that invite organisations such as facebook, google and people who are users of these social media sites. We shall also introduce a Cyber Law that will punish those who act in this way.”

A senior official in the President’s Office, who requested anonymity


This Article first appeared in the July 24, 2014 edition of Mizzima Business Weekly.

Mizzima Business Weekly is available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com

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