The production of good, hard-hitting journalism goes hand-in-hand with access to different communication tools. After the mobile phone was introduced into the mainstream, the face of journalism began to change dramatically. Not only did mobile phones increase information accessibility, but in time they created opportunities for everyday citizens to enter what once was the elite, tight-knit sector of journalism. This section explores how modern mobile phones are transforming civilians into journalists and, as a result, how they are turning the world of “traditional” journalism on its head.
Background: the Saffron Revolution
On August 15, 2007, anti-government protests erupted in Myanmar, otherwise known as Burma, after the country’s ruling military junta (called the State Peace and Development Council) removed fuel subsidies. Prices of diesel and petrol skyrocketed by as much as 100 percent while the cost of compressed natural gas, used for buses, increased by 500 percent. The rise in fuel prices increased the country’s food prices. In response, political activists and students led an initial wave of protests, which were quickly and violently snuffed out by junta security forces through public beatings and arrests.
On September 22, thousands of Buddhist monks across Myanmar launched a second wave of peaceful protests — often referred to as the “Saffron Revolution” in reference to the monks’ saffron-colored robes — with the aim of toppling the military junta. Security forces began their crackdown on September 26, attacking monks and protesters with tear gas and batons and making hundreds of arrests.
In the weeks that followed, the forces raided monasteries to arrest monks, publicly beat pro-democracy protesters and civilians, and attempted to close down the country’s communications in order to prevent transmission of articles testimony, testaments and photos. According to Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro of the UN Human Rights Council, 30-40 monks and 50-70 civilians were killed, and 200 people were severely beaten. Al Jazeera News reported that at least 1,000 people were arrested.
CASE STUDY: Myanmar (Burma)
Mobile phones played a crucial role in informing the world about Myanmar's pro-democracy protests. Dissent turned into outrage as mobile phones transmitted grainy images of Myanmar;s revered monks being beaten by junta security forces, “Citizen journalists” —everyday citizens in Myanmar — began surreptitiously recording video and taking photos of the public beatings and abuses, transmitting them to the international press via mobile phone. During the protests, the Democratic Voice of Burma emerged as a major news source for uncensored mobile and video footage taken inside Myanmar. DVB is a non-profit media organization run by Burmese expatriates living in Norway. Additional footage and images from Myanmar’s interior were also sent by citizens to wire services via email or MMS ("multimedia messaging service") , and widely circulated from there . http://www.democraticforumburma.org/photos.html
On September 28, the military junta cut off the Internet connection in Myanmar in an effort to limit the free flow of information to the outside world. Despite their efforts, however, citizen journalists continued to use their mobile phones to inform the international press. “Modern technology has become the generals’ worst enemy. There were only rusty phones, if you could get through [in 1988],” said Bertil Lintner, a Myanmar expert and author of several books on the country.
Lack of Press Freedom in Myanmar:
Freedom of press is an unavailable luxury in Myanmar. In 2007, the country ranked close to the bottom (164 out of 169 countries) in the worldwide press freedom index, rendering the international transmission of factual reporting nearly impossible. Reporters Without Borders said: “We are particularly disturbed by the situation in Burma (164th). The military junta’s crackdown on demonstrations bodes ill for the future of basic freedoms in this country. Journalists continue to work under the yoke of harsh censorship from which nothing escapes, not even small ads.” The press remains privately owned and held in the iron grip of the military junta. Media is subjected to intense censorship while security services increased the country’s telephone tapping capacity in order to advance surveillance of the press. In fact, two new eavesdropping stations have recently been created.
Citizen journalists have been playing a critical role in helping news organizations monitor Myanmar's largest protests in nearly two decades. Mobile phones broadcast footage and images of street fires and bloody monks, sabotaging the military junta’s efforts to control media coverage and impart a sanitized account of the protests. Thanks to mobile phones, YouTube, blogs and photo sharing, the story is being reportednonetheless.
Little information is available about these citizen journalists and the actual prevalence of mobile phone use throughout Myanmar. The accuracy of their information, images and footage is uncertain. However, these citizens are in the position to provide the best available information by using modern technology.However, it should be noted that the penetration of the telecommunications infrastructure in Myanmar is very low. It is still expensive and limited to a minority.
Cellular mobile telephone subscribers per 100 inhabitants