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Dramatic Drop Evident in Internet Rights for Myanmar, Belarus

FILE - A man records protesters on his mobile phone as they take part in a demonstration against the military coup, in Yangon, Myanmar, May 21, 2021.

Belarus and Myanmar registered a significant decline in global internet freedom ratings following political turmoil in which authorities in the two countries arrested journalists and blocked access to the internet.

In its annual Freedom on the Net report, the global nonprofit Freedom House found digital rights had declined globally for the 11th consecutive year, with China ranking the worst for the seventh time, and the U.S. seeing a decline for a fifth year.

Freedom on the Net is an annual assessment of digital rights in 70 states, with each country given a score on a 100-point scale based on factors including access, limits to content and violations of users' rights.

As well as new regulations and pressure on internet companies to comply with government demands, Freedom House found an increase in the arrests of social media users.

The most significant declines came in Belarus, Myanmar and Uganda, all of which experienced political unrest. While all three sought to limit access to online communication, Freedom House found that officials in Belarus and Myanmar also targeted media and online reporters.

Allie Funk, co-author of Freedom on the Net, told VOA that in Belarus and Myanmar, current events hastened what had been a multiyear decline for both countries.

“Particularly around elections or protests — these really tense political moments — you tend to have a flashpoint for internet freedom restrictions,” said Funk, a senior research analyst at Freedom House.

“Both regimes resorted to very blunt forms of censorship, so just broad-scale internet shutdowns in both countries,” she added.

Myanmar fell 14 points in the ratings, the largest decline Freedom House has ever recorded.

The country scored 17 out of 100, categorized as “not free,” after the junta blocked social media, websites and internet access as part of the February 1 coup in which the military seized power and ousted the democratically elected government.

The junta initially said it was blocking Facebook temporarily to ensure stability and prevent the spread of false news after the military takeover. But Freedom House found messaging apps, other social media sites and some national media outlets were also blocked.

The apparent use of surveillance along with the arrests of journalists, digital activists and others for online activity were also cited in the report.

Freedom House noted an increase in self-censorship and said hundreds of journalists remain in hiding to avoid arrest for their earlier coverage of anti-coup protests.

VOA attempted to contact Myanmar’s military for comment, but the spokesperson did not respond to the call or a request sent via messaging app.

Analysts and media in Myanmar told VOA the restrictions have not only curtailed reporting on the nation’s political turmoil but also have impacted daily life, from education to access to online health care during the coronavirus pandemic.

Myo Naying, a Myanmar-based tech expert, told VOA’s Burmese Service that the military council’s restrictions are damaging across large sectors, including e-commerce, education and health.

Since the coup, many residents have relied on the internet and social media to access news, and have turned away from state-controlled media, Myo Naying said.

In response, the military has tried to block access to independent news and imposed restrictions and surveillance on the internet, the tech expert said. Myo Naying added that security forces often check people’s phones and social media posts. Anyone found to be sharing posts critical of the military is arrested.

As of Thursday, the Thai-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, Burma, had documented 6,718 arrests or charges since the coup.

Freedom House said that surveillance had increased even in the months before the coup, and that in early February, the military circulated a draft cybercrime law that would place private data under the military’s control. Since the coup, security forces have also allegedly seized phones of those arrested and extracted data.

A journalist in Yangon, who asked for anonymity for fear of retaliation, told VOA that the surveillance puts reporters at risk.

"The internet surveillance, it made it difficult for journalists to do their work. It created risk and insecure communication through internet and social media, both for journalist and their news sources," the journalist said.

FILE - A man holds up a phone with its flashlight on during a rally of opposition supporters, who accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of rigging the polls in his favor, in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 10, 2020.
FILE - A man holds up a phone with its flashlight on during a rally of opposition supporters, who accuse Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko of rigging the polls in his favor, in Minsk, Belarus, Aug. 10, 2020.

‘Unprecedented pressure’

Media in Belarus have faced similar restrictions and retaliation since Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in presidential elections in August 2020, resulting in mass protests and arrests.

Freedom House, which examined conditions between June 2020 and May 2021, described the time frame as an “unprecedented campaign of repression against Belarusian online journalists, activists and internet users,” with more than 500 arrests.

The country is categorized as “not free” with a score of 31 out of 100.

The digital rights group cited internet shutdowns after the election and during protests; amendments to media laws including a ban on reporting live from breaking news events and provisions that made it easier to revoke or reject accreditation; the monitoring of social media; and the diversion of a passenger jet to facilitate the arrest of Raman Pratasevich, the founder of a popular Telegram channel.

The Belarusian Embassy in Washington did not respond to VOA’s email requesting comment.

“What Myanmar and Belarus exemplify is how increased surveillance, increased censorship, increased in-person attacks are really key tactics of digital repression that are here to stay, unfortunately,” said Funk of Freedom House.

Natalia Belikova, the head of international projects at the media network Press Club Belarus, told VOA that “unprecedented pressure” was put on independent media last year.

The result, Belikova said, is “an entirely sterile media environment where only state-authorized journalism is allowed.”

Nearly all print media are state-controlled and most independent media work online, Belikova said.

The government blocked access to more than 50 websites and issued an order to shut down one of the country’s most popular news sites,

“State-authorized journalism means basically propaganda, which works to polarize society and to divide society into those who support the incumbent regime and those who don't," Belikova said.

The journalist said that while there is little to be optimistic about, “there's still data that shows that independent sources of information still have a foothold on the Belarusian audience."

Despite a tougher online environment, Funk said there were positive signs, because of the courage of civil society and activists, including a youth movement in Myanmar.

Funk said the young people are “going out on the streets and really pushing back [against] the really intense digital oppression and the really egregious violence that they're facing. Their courage and resilience of pushing back against a brutal military is, I think, really incredible. I think there's a really tough hill to climb.”

Liam Scott and VOA’s Burmese Service contributed to this report.