Citizen Journalists' Evade Blackout On Myanmar
News Blogs and Shaky Videos Find Way Into Mainstream;
By GEOFFREY A. FOWLER Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2007
As Myanmar's regime cracks down on a growing protest movement, "citizen journalists" are breaking the news to the world. At 1:30 yesterday afternoon, a cellphone buzzed with news for Soe Myint, the editor in chief of Mizzima News, a publication about Myanmar run by exiles in New Delhi. The message: "There is a tourist shot down" in Yangon, the center of recent protests by Buddhist monks and others against the military junta in Myanmar, formerly Burma. Troops there were clearing the streets, telling protesters they had just minutes to go home -- or be shot. The text message wasn't from one of Soe Myint's reporters. In fact, he doesn't know who sent the message. He believes it came from one of the more than 100 students, activists and ordinary citizens who have been feeding him reports, images and video of the violent events unfolding in recent days. In the age of YouTube, cellphone cameras and text messaging, technology is playing a critical role in helping news organizations and international groups follow Myanmar's biggest protests in nearly two decades. Citizen witnesses are using cellphones and the Internet to beam out images of bloodied monks and street fires, subverting the Myanmar government's effort to control media coverage and present a sanitized version of the uprising. The Associated Press reported yesterday that soldiers in Yangon fired automatic weapons into a crowd of demonstrators as tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters converged in the capital. Wire services have reported the number of dead at nine, citing the state media. The BBC, which has a Burmese language Web site and radio service, is encouraging its audience to send in photos, like the ones it received of a monk's monastery that had been ransacked by authorities. A shaky video, now on YouTube, shows a sea of chanting and clapping monks draped in red robes marching down a street, past Buddhist monuments. One blog features a photo showing two abandoned, bloodstained sandals. Another blog was updated at 3 p.m. Myanmar time yesterday with a few English lines: "Right now they're using fire engines and hitting people and dragging them onto E2000 trucks and most of them are girls and people are shouting." Below the post is a blurry photo of trucks with the caption, "This is how they come out and try to kill people." Who produced these reports -- or how the information got out of Myanmar -- hasn't been established. But that's the point in a country where people caught protesting or writing against the government risk years in prison. The last time there was a protest of this scale in Myanmar was 1988, when a pro-democracy uprising was crushed by the military and more than 3,000 people died. First reports of that event came from diplomats and official media. "Technology has changed everything," says Aung Zaw, a Myanmar exile whose Thailand publication Irrawaddy has been covering events in Burma hour-by-hour, with reports gathered online. "Now in a split second, you have the story," says the editor. According to the AP, on Thursday Myanmar's state-run newspaper blamed the protests in Yangon, formerly called Rangoon, on "saboteurs inside and outside the nation." It also said that the demonstrations were much smaller than foreign media were reporting. The events are a trial by fire for so-called citizen journalists, who cover events that professional journalists can't get to. The Myanmar government has successfully kept out many reporters, some of whom are filing their stories about events in Myanmar from India and Thailand. The AP, Reuters and other media have been retransmitting photos and reports given to them by exile media organizations like Mizzima, Irrawaddy, and the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma. Those outfits are acting as a clearinghouse for images and reports produced by people in Myanmar. Time Warner Inc.'s CNN, which had its own reporter in Myanmar on Wednesday, has also been airing 65 clips and pictures from tourists and Myanmar residents sent in via its "ireport" citizen-journalist system. "When traditional methods and professional journalists can't provide footage, and personal safety allows, citizens rise to the challenge time and again, often with remarkable material," said Ellana Lee, the managing editor of CNN Asia Pacific in an email. "Even in countries like Myanmar, the spread of the Internet and mobile phones has meant that footage will always continue to get through and the story will be told, one way or another." Still, working with inexperienced journalists can be a challenge for news organizations that want to publish credible, balanced information. Reuters, which has a reporter stationed in Yangon, says content from citizen journalists is rigorously checked for accuracy.
Speaking of his correspondents, Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, says, "They are doing their job on the ground, and nobody is even giving them the assignment. It is our job to check again with our sources, to see how close to the truth it is." For example, he says his staff had a long discussion on Wednesday night about how many deaths had occurred during that day's bloody protests. The government was reporting one death, but his sources were saying possibly three, six or seven people died. In the end, after counting known specific cases, Irrawaddy made the "very difficult call" to say there were six deaths, says Aung Zaw. "We also said this number couldn't be confirmed." After Mizzima's Soe Myint received his text message about Thursday's tourist shooting, he asked one of the 10 reporters who work for him in Myanmar to verify the claim. An hour and a half after the initial report, Mizzima reported on its Web site that a 30-year old foreigner was injured in gunfire, and that an American flag was found with his bag. Security people also seized his video camera, the report said. Soe Myint says his grassroots reporting system is in place because his organization has been building a base of supporters in the country for years: "This is not the work of one day. We have been getting ready for this for the last nine years. People know our work and how to reach us." The safety of everyone trying to report from Myanmar now is cause for concern. Yesterday, a Japanese photojournalist was killed, and another foreign reporter was injured, according to reports. State media yesterday reported 11 people were injured in Yangon on Thursday, but it didn't specify who they were. One blogger dubbed "Moezack," whose photos and descriptions of the protests -- sometimes posted minutes after events occurred -- were picked up by the international press, had stopped blogging. His "Today Burma" blog is currently empty, and his whereabouts are unknown to several international groups, though he might be blogging under another name. The Paris-based group Reporters Without Borders says that many of the people sending reports out of Yangon are former journalists and activists, some of whom have at some point been jailed for their work. "They do it because they are part of the struggle," says the group's Asia program director, Vincent Brossel.
Myanmar is hardly a technological hub. Cellphones are expensive, and the Internet penetration rate is less than 1%. Even before the recent clash, the government has taken serious steps to censor Internet content, blocking access to popular foreign news and email services. A 2005 report by the Open Net Initiative, run out of several universities, said that Myanmar's State Peace and Development Council has implemented "one of the world's most restrictive regimes of Internet control." Yet activists and students in Burma have become particularly skilled at using technological tricks to bypass those restrictions -- some of them borrowed from China, where the government also censors the Internet. These include using proxies, which create a hole in the censorship network by connecting directly to one computer outside the country. Reporters Without Borders says that at 3 p.m. yesterday, authorities disconnected most of the country's cellphone lines, preventing journalists and demonstrators from reporting on events. Authorities have also closed some Internet cafes in Yangon, effectively shutting down many blogs and Web sites. The Internet has slowed so that it has been difficult to send out photographs and video. It took several hours for pictures to emerge of Wednesday's shootings, says Mr. Brossel. So now groups determined to get news out are turning to costly but independent satellite phones, which can't as easily be monitored by the government. Irrawaddy's Aung Zaw remains confident. "The more they try to suppress information, the more will come out."