finding content from inside burma – harder than you’d think

By on Sep 26, 2007 in blogging techniques, citizen journalism, journalism, social software | 6 comments

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Yesterday I took a phone call from a BBC colleague who was hoping for some tips as to where he might look – photo and video sharing websites, social networking service, etc – for people posting from inside Burma.

Journalists hoping to find authentic, first hand accounts, photos and video content being posted from inside Burma are likely to face a number of challenges including:

* figuring out which social networking and content sharing services being used by people inside the country
* low levels, at least in comparison to many other countries, of internet use
* government filtering and blocking of internet content
* the use of hidden proxies that route around this blocking but also make Burmese content invisible to the outside world

So how can journalists find content from Burma or, for that matter, anywhere a story like this is emerging?

Until the recent protests by monks demanding democracy, Burma wasn’t a place I’d often thought about or come across so I told my colleague, who’d asked where to look, to do pretty much the same thing as Graham at NoodlePie does everytime he wants to find out more about a big news story – use various blog search tools and aggregators and subscribe to the RSS feed of the results – which Graham does to good effect here.

In addition to the obvious social networking sites, I suggested the journalist have a look at Orkut and LiveJournal, both of which have fallen out of favour with early adopters in the west but have proven surprisingly resilient with audiences outside the west. Orkut, for example, is the largest social networking service in Brazil and India.

Of course, I don’t carry the country by country usage statistics for various social networking services in my head – I use ValleyWag’s collection of data and maps.Picture_360

Flickr and youtube featured in our conversation, as they should whenever looking for eyewitness content, but there also lots of mobile blogging sites that might have a larger than expected audience in Burma. I also suggested that the journalist have a look at some of those often forgotten non-web spaces such as IRC and email lists.

Were the story in the UK I doubt I’d have any problem finding it at all, but actual eyewitness photos, videos and blog posts of the protests in Burma, and today’s police crackdown against them, are proving for more challenging to find. It might be that the Burmese government has been particularly successful in filtering descent coming in or out of the country via the internet.

In 2005, a study by Harvard University for the OPenNet Initiative (ONI) found that Myanmar’s internet censorship “was among the ‘most extensive’ in the World.”

The Asia Times says:

“Most Internet accounts in Myanmar are designed to provide access only to the limited Myanmar intranet, and the authorities block access to popular e-mail services such as Gmail and Hotmail…”

The good news is that, since that study took place in 2005, things have actually improved for many internet users in Myanmar. According to the Asia Times,

“Two years later, thanks to the growing global proliferation of proxy servers, proxy sites, encrypted e-mail accounts, http tunnels and other creative workarounds, the cyber-reality in Myanmar is actually much less restricted than ONI’s research indicated.”

“To be sure, official Internet penetration rates are abysmally low in Myanmar, because of the prohibitive cost and bureaucratic hassle, including the provision of a signed letter from the relevant porter warden that the applicant is not “politically dangerous”, to secure a domestic connection.”

“However, those low figures mask the explosion of usage at public Internet cafes, particularly in Yangon, where a growing number are situated in nondescript, hard-to-find locales. All of the cafes visited in recent months by this correspondent were equipped with foreign-hosted proxy sites or servers, which with the help of the cafe attendant allowed customers to bypass government firewalls and connect freely to the World Wide Web – including access to otherwise blocked critical news sources.”

One popular proxy service in Burma, Glite, is, according to it’s creator, “designed not to be indexed by search sites, which gives Myanmar’s Internet cafes their own private and secure access and makes censor search-engine results for its site seem deceptively sparse”.

Although some photos and first hand accounts are making their way out to news and media organisations, including the BBC, and a trickle of other content is being picked up by people like Graham, there isn’t as much out there as I’d hoped to find – or maybe I’m just looking in the wrong places?