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

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?


  1. Actually, there is a lot of content out there from Burma. I may not seem like it to you, but compare it to 1988 and it’s incredible what’s out there. Especially when you consider low internet penetration, low connection speeds, need for proxy servers etc. The Burmese have been amazing getting stuff out there.
    Protests were smaller in 1988, but the crackdown was faster and thus far at least, far more brutal. What with the sheer amount of footage getting out of Burma I naively thought that the media of the people had the power to make a difference this time round. And it will, but it may not be enough to stop this dictatorship shooting more people in saffron, detaining, beating and imprisoning others.
    Interestingly, there was a rumour going around that the junta were going to shut down the internet last night. How does a govt. shut down internet access?
    Lastly, in addition to the newsgathering methods I blogged i also used keyword Technorati and Google Blog search rss feeds – but you get too much crap and it’s too time consuming to sift through. More specific keyword searches on Burmese names may help there. I have found brings out the cream very quickly. In fact this whole chapter has made me realise how much of a mess Technorati is to find good, relevant, niche information or maybe I’m just doing it wrong?

  2. One thing I should add is that the best footage that I have seen so far has come out of the BBC
    I don’t know how they got this footage. However, I suspect they have some kind of mobile phone stringers and/or the Burmese themselves send it direct to the BBC. I’ve spent time in Burma and the Burmese hold the BBC World Service in very, very high regard. Like a beacon of light is how it was described to me. Everyone who can get to a radio listens to it.
    There’s a story I heard in Burma about that which maybe I’ll tell you next time we meet…

  3. Free Burma!
    International Bloggers’ Day for Burma on the 4th of October
    International bloggers are preparing an action to support the peaceful revolution in Burma. We want to set a sign for freedom and show our sympathy for these people who are fighting their cruel regime without weapons. These Bloggers are planning to refrain from posting to their blogs on October 4 and just put up one Banner then, underlined with the words „Free Burma!“.

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