Hacking Authoritarian Regimes With Simple Technology | Independent Newspapers Limited
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Hacking Authoritarian Regimes With Simple Technology

Posted: Jul 2, 2015 at 12:27 am   /   by   /   comments (0)

When it comes to freedom of expression, the Internet is seen as either a place of liberty or anarchy, depending on your point of view.

While authoritarian regimes regard it as a dangerous hole in their control net, today activists from all over the world use it to voice their dissent and overcome censorship.

For many years, Chinese Internet users have been using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to encrypt their connection and bypass the Great Firewall of China, the government’s network security system. At the end of 2014, the pro-democracy protesters of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement communicated through FireChat, a smartphone app that allows users to send text messages ‘off-the-grid’ using a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link instead of a standard Internet connection.

Twitter was the Arab Spring’s social network of choice, and in the 90s the Zapatista movement used the Internet to promote change in the Chiapas region of Mexico, as local NGOs were able to send out hundreds of eyewitness reports through the Net.

But technology was a powerful ally of dissent before the Internet-era too, and the history of the independent news organisation Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) shows how simple technologies can help bypass censorship and promote democracy and human rights. Its first weapon was radio.

At a first glance, the DVB newsroom looks like any other in the world. Journalists are chatting, phoning, sharing stories, checking emails and watching the BBC News on a TV screen. But when it was founded things could not have been more different.

From 1962 to 2011, Burma — now Myanmar — was isolated from the rest of the world. It was one of Asia’s poorest nations, ruled by a military junta who seized power through violence. Its recipe for socialism consisted of a single party, a nationalised economy, and no independent press.

Aye Chan Naing, DVB’s executive director and chief editor, started working as a journalist after the anti-government riots in 1988 that were repressed violently by the junta, killing more than 3,000 people. At the time Naing was studying dentistry, but he decided to change his life course and join a guerrilla group, so he fled to Thailand. On arriving in Thailand, however, he did not become a soldier. Instead, he started writing articles to inform the world about what was happening inside Burma.

In 1989 the military declared martial law, arrested thousands of pro-democracy and human rights campaigners, changed the name of Burma to Myanmar, renamed Rangoon ‘Yangon’, and placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, under house arrest.

To avoid censorship Naing moved to Norway and together with a small group of journalists he founded DVB, setting up newsrooms in Norway and Thailand.

In July 1992 DVB went on air for the first time, broadcasting from Oslo, Norway. At that time it was solely an independent radio station, airing radio bulletins twice a day. Clandestine journalists gathered stories from inside Myanmar and sent their reports to Norway and Thailand, where the news was edited and transmitted back to Myanmar.

For many years shortwave radio — radio frequencies that can travel long distances because the waves reflect off the upper atmosphere and further around the Earth — was one of the only ways to get independent information into Myanmar. It was only thanks to this technology that Burmese people could find out what the regime was doing in their country, including the abuse of human rights and oppression of dissent.

DVB expanded over time and launched its website in the late 90s. In 2005 it started to broadcast satellite TV. In the meantime, with the audience for shortwave radio dropping each year, DVB switched from shortwave to online radio in October 2014.

DVB was introduced to a wider global audience during the 2007 ‘Saffron Revolution’, when Buddhist monks led a series of anti-government protests. These demonstrations were crushed by the military, and coverage of the protests inside Myanmar was heavily censored. But despite risking jail and torture, undercover DVB journalists armed with small, hand-held cameras and mobile phones managed to smuggle images and stories to the international media.

According to Naing, the most important technical revolutions in DVB’s history were the use of mobile technology and the advent of the web. “The spread of the internet and mobile phones in Burma changed the way DVB reported events. Today, DVB connects over 2000 citizen journalists across Burma, and trains local journalists through practical courses to expand its network of contributors. In the past two years, DVB has trained more than 200 local journey.

Myanmar has one of the lowest levels of telecommunications and Internet access in the world. According to the World Bank, today only one out of 100 people in Burma have Internet access. Nevertheless, DVB uses footage from citizen journalists in Myanmar taken using cheap mobile phones. It also uses satellite Internet connection in emergencies to bypass local internet control, “but this is not a cheap solution,” says Naing.

“The biggest technical problem for DVB has been poor telecommunication, the solution has been to bundle several SIM cards to increase Internet bandwidth,” says Naing.

Today DVB has two newsrooms: one in Myanmar and the other in Thailand. DVB journalists report in both Burmese and English, and through the Internet reach a global audience.