Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Myanmar Knows Not to Censor. Do You?

Myanmar, Burma, Hate Speech, Panzagar, Nay Phone Latt, No-Hate Speech Project, SumRando Cybersecurity, VPN, Messenger Democratic reforms in a country previously under repressive military rule are typically viewed in a positive light, but what happens when bad comes with good?

Such is the dilemma faced by Myanmar today, a country that has seen the lifting of harsh censorship laws coupled with increased access to the internet lead to a proliferation of hate speech, especially that targeted towards the Rohingya and other Muslims in this majority Buddhist nation.

A country that has recently experienced the detrimental effects of censorship knows not to simply return to silencing its citizens as a solution. Instead, Myanmar has found its answer in a clever alternative: dialogue.

Since 2014, Panzagar (“Flower Speech”) has empowered Myanmar’s Facebook users to respond to harmful language with friendly stickers that offer comments such as “Think before you share” and “Don’t spread the hate, alright?” The project was founded by blogger Nay Phone Latt who was jailed in 2007 for sharing information regarding anti-government protesting and released 5 years later.

Ever the free speech advocate, Nay Phone Latt previously reported, “I don’t want to ask the government to control hate speech because if they control the hate speech, they will want to control all [opinions]. So it can harm freedom of expression. I prefer to monitor hate speech and report about that than limiting it through law.”

More recently, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) has joined the effort to counter hate speech with a year-long project aimed at promoting tolerance by monitoring public comments, engaging with contributors of misinformation and sharing its findings. The No-Hate Speech Project maintains a commitment to both challenging hate speech and defending freedom of expression.

Noted IWPR Asia Director Alan Davis, “The essential challenge facing Burma is how to protect and defend things without going on the offensive and attacking and inciting violence against others. Consequently, our project is all about our belief that the more information and education and debate is encouraged and shared respectfully, the more we can all reduce the influence and impact of hate speech.

“The training emphasized that we stand against any forms of censorship and that the views of nationalist Buddhist groups like Ma Ba Tha and the activist monk Wirathu have a full right to be heard—and we will even seek to try and engage with them as part of this project. If the anti-Muslim hate speech of Ma Ba Tha comes from a fear of the future and a belief in the need to protect Buddhist Bamar culture, identity and traditions, let us get it all out in the open to discuss it fairly and respectfully.”

A world often afraid of its citizen’s voices has much to learn from the approaches taken by Panzagar and IWPR in Myanmar. Freedom of speech—especially following years of silence—can be messy, ugly and uncomfortable for all, but it is the dialogue that it brings that is absolutely necessary to achieve a lasting peace.

Censorship is not the answer.


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