Information Strategies for Societies in Transition
The Information Strategies for Societies in Transition program builds capacity across sectors in Myanmar. The program has four major components: (1) creating a professional network of mid-career professionals from civil society, political parties, the media, government ministries, and think tanks; (2) designing curricula with our Myanmar partners that facilitate general informational capacity building; (3) building information literacy through public libraries and (4) serving as a focal point for projects focused on tackling digital and information challenges in Myanmar.
The program is supported by USAID, Microsoft, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is housed in the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and is run in collaboration with the Technology & Social Change Group in the University of Washington’s Information School.
Since mid-2011, Myanmar has been going through an unprecedented change as it emerges from five decades of military rule and struggles to advance three major structural transformations – from authoritarian to democratic rule, from economic isolation and underdevelopment to an integrated market economy, and from war to peace. The challenges the country faces to “catch-up” in the world’s most economically competitive region are staggering. However, Myanmar is also on the precipice of a fourth transformation, one that holds the unprecedented potential to strengthen individual abilities for democratic citizenship and institutional capacity to sustain the reforms, or at minimum, to raise the costs of significant backsliding. This fourth transformation is that Myanmar is about to leap across the digital divide, due to the government’s liberalization of all media and the opening of the telecommunications market to highly motivated and experienced global cellular providers. Mobile saturation rates are likely to climb from four percent to more than 80 percent by the end of 2015.
Since the liberalization efforts began, individuals’ access to information has been encouraged. Any content is now permitted online and there has been a proliferation of print media sources. In September 2011, the government lifted any restrictions on foreign news sources and exile media as well as human rights websites. Content that had been restricted for “social” reasons, such as pornography, is also no longer restricted. However, harsh laws governing content, expression, and the press remain in effect, although not enforced. This tied to the impact of years of oppression of the education system and the systematic suspicion of all information sources has created a difficult environment. Government officials say that they are in the process of repealing and changing laws having to do with public access, but they now have to grapple with the explosion of hate speech online and the targeting of vulnerable populations. Early copies of newly drafted legislation contain certain speech/content restrictions, perhaps tied to this concern over hate speech, including potential restriction on undesirable content. Because of low levels of trust in the government, civil society groups and the international community have reacted strongly to this type of potential legal text.
Overall, the government appears to be dedicated to increasing access to information, but it is still too early to know if that will manifest beyond mobile connections created through foreign telecommunications companies. While greater access to information will undoubtedly generate positive long term benefits, the short term information fire hose effect raises serious concerns because domestic democratic institutions are fragile. Deep-rooted historical structures of surveillance and censorship have long made information production, dissemination, and consumption—as well as active learning and any kind of criticism—dangerous undertakings. The public has neither had access to reliable sources of information, nor the ability to critically assess the veracity of new information sources. Against this backdrop there has been an explosion in social media use, injecting a complicating factor by fueling the quick spread of opinions and rumors, which news outlets pick up and report as fact, thereby creating distorted views of and inciting actions around hotbed issues that threaten to undermine the reform processes and destabilize the country. Religious and ethnic minorities, politicians, prominent citizens, and others are subject to an unending flow of hate speech, rumor-mongering, and other irresponsible forms of information circulation for which there would be built-in counterweights in a more mature information society.