Myanmar: Internet shutdown, misinformation obstructs voters’ rights

Voters across Myanmar went to the polls on November 8 in an election that is expected to see the return to power of Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. In the lead up to the election the Myanmar government’s ongoing shutdown of internet services in Western Myanmar was extended, restricting access to telecommunication services for over a million citizens in conflict zones. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) condemns the government’s blatant manipulation and interference with the democratic process, restricting access to communication, press freedom and personal expression.

People wearing face shields and face masks to prevent the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus queue to vote at a polling station in Rakhine state on November 8, 2020. Credit: Str/AFP

The world’s longest internet shutdown began on 21 June 2019, affecting townships in Rakhine and Chin states with a total population of approximately 1.4 million people. The previous 2G internet blackout expired at the end of October, however the four internet providers, Telenor, MPT, Ooredoo and MyTel, have been instructed to maintain the 3G and 4G internet restrictions in Western Myanmar from 28 October.

The Myanmar general election took place on November 8, with polling occurring in all 1,171 national, state and regional seats, including in the conflict zones affected by the internet blackout. The continued restriction of internet access in these vulnerable regions has been construed as a further disruption of the democratic process, with voter suspensions and lack of transparency by Myanmar’s Union Election Commission leading to allegations of state manipulation. The United Nations, human rights experts, civil society groups and private organisations have all voiced grave concerns regarding the shutdown’s threat to the safety of civilians, freedom of expression, right to information, association and assembly.

The Ministry of Transport and Communications has the authority to suspend a telecommunications service or restrict certain forms of communication during ‘emergency situations’ under Article 77 of the Telecommunications Law. The shutdown has greatly impeded public access to information regarding the coronavirus pandemic and encumbered the provision of aid to groups affected by the conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. IFJ has partnered with internet freedom advocates and organisations from the #KeepItOn coalition, urgently appealing to the Myanmar authorities to provide accessible and secure internet throughout the election and beyond.

Myanmar’s election has also been marred by a misinformation campaign run largely on Facebook against Sithu Maung, one of only two Muslims who has been allowed to run in Myanmar's general election. Civil society groups have found dozens of networks of accounts, pages, and groups spreading ethnically and religiously hate that they fear could undermine the election.

The IFJ said: “Government censorship, restricted access to impartial content and the dissemination of misinformation gravely undermine the political process in Myanmar and negatively impact vulnerable citizens in Rakhine and Chin states. The IFJ calls for the immediate reinstatement of access to internet and telecommunications and controls placed on the spread of misinformation.”

For further information contact IFJ Asia - Pacific on ifj@ifj-asia.org

The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 140 countries

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