Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Myanmar’s fourth estate

The trial of two Reuters reporters is a sign of a withering local press and the rise of social media rumourmongering.

Monks at the Masoeyein Monastery read newspapers in Mandalay, (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty)
Monks at the Masoeyein Monastery read newspapers in Mandalay, (Photo: Lauren DeCicca/Getty)

The arrest in Myanmar of two Reuters journalists, accused of possessing secret government papers, has put the spotlight on the freedom of the press and the country’s weak justice system. A court last week upheld the charges and the case will shortly go to trial. 

The case looks set to only grow in stature, bringing further attention to press freedoms and the country’s stumbling reforms.

When Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested on December 12, they were working on a Reuters investigation on the killing of ten Rohingya. That excellent report can be found here

With mainstream media withering in Myanmar, Facebook, a platform rife with unsubstantiated rumour, is picking up the slack.

The trial is ongoing: little can be said on the facts of the case. But the response from various embassies in Yangon was telling. One EU spokesperson noted that the decision “threatens fundamental freedoms, free media and the public’s right to information in Myanmar.”  Statements from other quarters were similarly critical. 

Earlier this year Amal Clooney joined the legal team for the Reuters journalists. The high-profile lawyer previously worked on the case of Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova, released in 2016 and subsequently awarded the Alternative Nobel Prize in 2017. As Clooney noted of the Reuters trial, “the outcome of this case will tell us a lot about Myanmar’s commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.” That is true of the outcome but also of the process. Already the case has further weakened confidence in the country’s democratic transition and the headline-catching involvement of Clooney will cause headaches for officials trying to play the case down. 

The Reuters case highlights the deeper structural problems stymying Myanmar’s democratic transition. A gaping hole in this transition is the development of the country’s institutions. Last year’s assassination of U Ko Ni, a champion of the rule of law, was a clear sign of resistance to the empowering of institutions that could safeguard emerging norms. Along with the rule of law, Myanmar’s institutions have failed dismally to protect press freedom. This has allowed rumour to return with a vengeance in Myanmar.

Deep, structural troubles

On key governance issues, Myanmar’s civilian and military leaders are still grappling with norms that some of their peers take for granted – human rights, press freedom and others. Yangon’s embrace of these norms has been made harder by the challenge they face across the region. 

Among the thorniest of these issues is the diffusion of power unleashed by social media. Approaches by other government in responding to the age of digital disruption are uneven at best. Southeast Asia has seen numerous examples of governments unwilling to adapt. This is exemplified by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s response when he warned dissenters: “You should not use bad words to insult me [on Facebook], because I can get you if I want to.” 

Before Facebook, in Junta-ruled Myanmar, clandestine journals and after-dark whispers were some of the most reliable sources of news. Unsurprisingly, rumour flowed freely through these channels, often gaining credence (and details) as the audience swelled. Fear of being the subject of rumour made people amenable to inconvenient censorship rules. Rumour was for all intents and purposes the fourth estate. Watchers of Myanmar had hoped that the expansion of the free press would challenge both rumour and government propaganda. But now, with mainstream media withering in Myanmar, Facebook, a platform rife with unsubstantiated rumour, is picking up the slack.

As highlighted in a recent report, many in Myanmar consider posts on Facebook to be factual news. This murky reality, combined with state-owned media pushing propaganda, reduces the ability of Myanmar citizens to properly understand the issues facing the country. It was this environment that enabled the production and spread of hate speech on Facebook, which increased dramatically during attacks on the Rohingya in 2017.

The beast within

This is finally being publicly recognised. Yanghee Lee, the UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, raised concerns about social media stirring up racial hatred in March, saying that “Facebook has turned into a beast.”

In April CEO Mark Zuckerberg admitted Facebook’s concern about the use of the platform, noting that in Myanmar people are using Facebook “to incite real-world harm”. But Zuckerberg also argued that Facebook’s systems were able to detect and stop hate speech in Myanmar. In an open letter to Zuckerberg, a group of NGOs active in Myanmar disputed this claim, highlighting that in the cases of “systematic” detection of hate speech, only the NGOs’ laborious flagging of individual items to Facebook was having an effect. Zuckerberg later apologised. That furore seems to have sparked deeper reflection. 

On Wednesday*, Zuckerberg announced new rules for Facebook that allows the removal of misinformation that could lead to physical harm. The new rules, which a spokesperson noted were largely in response to events in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and India, will see Facebook working with local NGOs to help identify hate speech online. The rules deepen and formalise a relationship that had developed organically responding to the obvious gap in Facebook’s capabilities.

Zuckerberg’s willingness to front journalists and respond to criticism on these thorny issues is something to be commended but already he has been pulled up on his choice of example of what is and isn’t hate speech and on comments that suggest the controversial outlet Infowars may be above these rules. And therein lies the problem going forward. Just as one man’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist, one man’s freedom of speech is anothers’ hate speech. How these new rules actually play out in Myanmar and if they can stem dangerous rumour and misinformation will be closely watched. 

However, for all the finger pointing, Facebook in Myanmar is still capitalising on the vacuum left behind by the lack of free press. And this vacuum is the root problem.

Yangon’s failure to build strong and independent institutions remains at the core of many of Myanmar’s problems. The government’s failure to support and build independent institutions to ensure press freedom is at the heart of the proliferation of hate speech and contributed to the ensuing violence. Without these institutions, Myanmar is on a road to nowhere. There will be more undeserving casualties along the way.


* This article was updated subsequent to this announcement.

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