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Burmese media guard new freedom as companies look to invest

11:00am | 15 November 2012 | by Peter Micek, English

Since taking power from Burma’s military junta in March 2011, the administration of President Thein Sein has introduced sweeping reforms and released hundreds of political prisoners. Emerging from decades of dictatorship is a slow process, however. The country continues to be criticized on human rights, most recently the persecution of the Muslim Rohingya group. Some report its ruling party is facing a crisis of confidence. In the midst of these challenges, the Burmese government is awaiting an upcoming visit by President Barack Obama, part of his swing through southeast Asia en route to the annual ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) summit.

In this sensitive situation, reforms extended to the media and communications environment must be protected. Direct censorship has ended as media no longer must submit articles for pre-publication, government review. Released bloggers have returned online. Self-censorship continues, however, a dynamic captured by a recent film by Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Pressing for Freedom.

The Norway-based DVB is staffed by exiled and expatriated Burmese citizens, some of whom are now returning to establish an in-country office. The short film recounts the imprisonment and release of several video journalists and bloggers. They remain wary about their rights: according to activists, “the legal system hasn't changed -- vague and bogus laws used to persecute journalists still exist,” the film maintains.

For instance, the notorious “Electronics Transactions Law,” or Electronics Act, remains on the books. Penalties for violating the law range to 15 years in prison (see Chapter XII), more than double the minimum sentence for murder, which is a 7 year sentence. One blogger in Pressing notes,“There’s a huge difference between murder and using electronics.” What’s worse, the released bloggers only got suspended sentences: they’ll have to serve the full penalties if convicted of further crimes.

Those video journalists still operating now guard their meager freedom, they tell DVB in the film. Indeed, few Burmese have had the opportunity to enjoy social media, much less even basic technologies. “For every 100 people in Myanmar only 1.26 has access to a fixed telephone line, and 0.03 has broadband internet access, according to the Asian Development Bank. Estimates of mobile phone penetration are under 4 percent," per Myanmar Times. Its government has not encouraged their use or development. This directly threatens Burmese citizens’ freedom of expression, since, as John Morrison of the Institute of Human Rights and Business notes, “Phones are now the most common way people go online in most developing economies, many for the first time.”

Burma has also been no exception to the worldwide trend of closed societies using online censorship and surveillance to control expression and undermine privacy. In Freedom House’s 2012 Freedom on the Net report, Burma’s “freedom on the net” status is ranked “Not Free.” In the country, “Harsh media laws remain in effect and could be used at any time to punish a wide range of online expression, the technical censorship system appears intact, and some opposition blogs continue to be blocked.”

Despite the country’s recent moves towards liberalization, Access believes these threats to internet freedom and digital rights will continue for the foreseeable future, and will likely involve private actors as well as the state.

A host of new reports document the threats and opportunities. In a release from Oct. 23, 2012, the OpenNet Initiative (ONI), which tests internet filtering, found reduced censorship in the country. Their August 2012 tests revealed that in Burma, “both the scope and depth of content found to be filtered were drastically reduced compared to all previous rounds of ONI testing dating back to 2005.”

The U.S. State Department decided last spring, and began in July, to ease trade sanctions on Burma. In his July speech announcing the easing, President Obama expressed concerns over the “lack of transparency in Burma’s investment environment and the military’s role in the economy.” To assuage those concerns, also voiced by U.S. Congress, the State Department has begun consulting various stakeholders to craft “reporting requirements” before allowing companies to invest there. A number of civil society groups submitted a Joint NGO Comment on Responsible Investment in Burma Reporting Requirements, issuing a statement warning about “the US government’s decision to lift all remaining sanctions, and allow corporations unrestricted investment access to Burma despite widespread corruption, ongoing human rights violations and a total lack of rule of law.” Their statement notes “the current requirements lack specificity about enforcement and consequences for non-compliance. Furthermore, existing loopholes enable companies to designate information as ‘confidential’ as a way to avoid public scrutiny. The US government should take immediate steps to ensure that there is a strong regulatory framework that can effectively promote accountability and transparency.” A group of investors likewise argued for greater transparency and consequences for failure to comply.

All assistance requested by or provided to the Burmese government by U.S. companies should be public. This is true regardless of the particular government entity making the request. However, the draft Reporting Requirements allow a “confidentiality” exception regarding “military communications.” Entities like the Burmese military, complicit in human rights abuses and the suppression of legitimate expression for decades, must deal with telecoms and other information and communications technology (ICT) companies transparently. Otherwise, the military could easily enter telecom offices and demand data or intercepts without following due process of law. Casting “sunshine” on those requests is necessary to ensure that companies know and show they respect the human rights of users and remedy abuses when they occur.

The Institute for Human Rights and Business (IHRB) has also released an assessment of responsible investing options in Burma, under the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. It notes the poor telecoms infrastructure, as “land-based telephone services in the country rarely work reliably. Cellular coverage is spotty and expensive. Until about two years ago, merely obtaining a SIM card could cost thousands of dollars.” The report concludes that any company investing in large projects must conduct due diligence; be aware of ethnic divisions; avoid local partners who are sanctioned or accused of contributing to human rights violations; and vigilantly combat corruption through adherence to international standards.

Access looks forward to a situation where telecoms may invest in Burma and its population will be able to safely exercise their rights online. Any company prospectively bidding for operations there -- as TeliaSonera and Huawei have expressed interest in doing -- should consult the above recommendations, as well as the Telco Action Plan, and follow its principles and implementation objectives. Moreover, companies should diligently report any contact with government entities or their partners, whether or not the U.S government requires them to disclose these interactions. They must also follow Burma's new Investment Law. Pro-democracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi gave her approval to a revision of the act, which the President signed into force on Nov. 2. Recently, Suu Kyi requested increases in "responsible" foreign investment in the energy sector and elsewhere. Based in part on Suu Kyi's support for foreign investment in Burma at this time, we cautiously encourage telecoms to begin due diligence around investments there.

Burma's pro-democracy politician Aung San Suu Kyi gave her approval to a revision of the Investment Law, which the President signed into force on Nov. 2. Recently, she requested increases in "responsible" foreign investment in the energy sector and elsewhere. Based in part on Suu Kyi's support for foreign investment in Burma at this time, we cautiously encourage telecoms to begin due diligence around investments there.

Users can visit Free Burma VJ’s site (http://www.freeburmavj.org) for more ways to get involved in the fight for media and communications freedom in Burma. Shareholders can track their company’s investments in the region and follow Access for more news on telecoms operating in Burma.