Publicity, New Media, and Human Rights in Burma

While the Internet has spelled gloom and doom for print media and professional journalism, it has dramatically expanded the communications toolkit for the promotion of human rights.

If you haven't already, check out Carroll Bogert's essay on human rights and the media in the Human Rights Watch World Report 2011. Bogert notes that foreign bureaus in mainstream media are shrinking or disappearing altogether, due in large part to slumping economies and the rise of the Internet and new media. The plunge is hard on journalists and unfortunate for consumers, who now get far less news from foreign correspondents than they used to. It's also hard on organizations like EarthRights International and Bogert's own Human Rights Watch, which traditionally relied on those same journalists to expose injustice to the larger public and key stakeholders.

But there's an upside, as Bogert and others have noted, and blogs like HuffPo are a part of it. While the Internet has spelled gloom and doom for print media and professional journalism, it has dramatically expanded the communications toolkit for the promotion of human rights. Organizations and individuals have in a very real sense become citizen journalists, creating and reporting on their own issues, in their own way. Bloggers, facebookers, and tweeters are just the beginning. The number of activists, human rights researchers, and impacted communities with new media at their fingertips grows daily, and wider audiences can now be reached directly and instantly in ever-newer ways over the Internet.

Nevertheless, in many places this comes with risks. Repressive governments are making moves to keep up with the new infrastructures of expression, e.g. China's great firewall, Cambodia's misused defamation laws, Viet Nam's new media decree and Internet crackdown, Burma banning Skype and jailing bloggers, etc. And that's just in Asia. Over 40 governments worldwide now censor and restrict the Internet using spyware or firewalls. On top of that, vague or unjust laws are commonly used to restrict freedom of expression rather than protect it, particularly when it comes to critical voices promoting or demanding their rights.

In other cases, however, survivors of abuse and human rights defenders are completely offline, making the need for publicity that much more important.

EarthRights International recently released a new report documenting land confiscation, forced labor, torture, and other abuses connected to multi-billion dollar cross-country oil and gas pipelines currently under construction from military-ruled Burma to China. The huge projects involve the notorious Burmese Army and some of the world's largest energy companies, including South Korea's Daweoo International and the state-owned China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC). The projects are directly and indirectly affecting thousands in Burma, most of whom are far removed from the latest technological advances.

What's more, the energy companies are about to break ground in Northern Shan State, a remote conflict zone (something the companies don't want their investors to know about). The ethnic Shan State Army-North and the Burmese Army are currently fighting near the proposed path of the projects, largely beneath the international radar, while the ethnic Kachin Independence Army braces for attacks from the Burmese regime, also in the proposed path of the pipelines.

The core recommendation from EarthRights International and the Shwe Gas Movement -- a Burmese-led grassroots movement focusing on the impacts of the pipelines -- is that the oil companies should immediately postpone construction and mitigate existing harms.

To make that message a reality, publicity is an essential piece of the puzzle. The new 24-page report was covered in at least seven languages and spread widely online. It was in the New York Times opinion pages; mainstream outlets like TIME magazine online; and in several news wires and key regional outlets like the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the Irrawaddy, and Mizzima News.

Internet access is still limited in Burma. Only 1 percent of the population of 53 million are online and they're primarily in urban centers. On Monday, Freedom House ranked Burma second to last in the world for internet freedom. This makes old technologies like radio handy to raise domestic awareness about human rights issues. In this case, Burmese language radio stations like the BBC Burmese service, Radio Free Asia, and DVB broadcasted the story nationwide in Burma, despite the ruling generals' repression.

Whether it's in print, on radio, or online, at least two things are certain: 1) An authoritarian military regime should not be able to commit torture and forced labor with impunity while its corporate partners sit by and watch, acquiring villagers' land without their genuine consent, en route to a conflict zone; and 2) The perpetrators in this case would prefer the outside world and the people of Burma didn't know about their scandalous impacts.

Let's not let that happen. You can download the report here and spread it widely through your own social media networks. With new media and communication tools, the hope is that those spreading human rights information can stay one step ahead. Citizens can now be newsmakers, reporters, and media outlets at will -- and by that, the generals of Burma and other repressive governments are undoubtedly troubled.