As the world awaits the U.N. briefing on this week’s peace talks in Myanmar, the chaos and violence on the ground ensues. The rising death toll is estimated in the hundreds, with injuries and arrests mounting by the day. But anyone outside the country’s borders is virtually in the dark as to how the situation is now unfolding.
That was not the case this time last week.
On Friday, Sept. 28, the Myanmar government effectively shut down all cell-phone and Internet communication, stunting a citizen-journalism movement that had itself drawn international recognition.
The state-controlled media in Myanmar has been tight-lipped, to say the least. Communication with international news organizations has been spotty, and soldiers continue to turn reporters away at the borders. The message has been clear: “Nothing to see here.”
But armed with cell phones, cameras and laptops, common citizens and protesters stepped in to expose the conflict in real time. Some ran blogs of their own. Many dispatched pictures and videos of police violence to off-shore bloggers and news sites. Either way, they loosened the government’s chokehold on communication.
Now, with the ebb and flow of information from within at a standstill, the offshore sites are left to sustain awareness. A brand-new site out of Germany, Free-Burma.org, calls on bloggers around the world to post a “Free Burma” awareness graphic on any posts today, Oct. 4. Organizer Philipp Hausser talked to us about “International Bloggers’ Day For Burma” and the impact of Myanmar’s citizen-journalist phenomenon.
Online Journalism Review: First off, can you tell me a little about the history of your site?
Phillip Hausser: The original idea came from a Blogger in Italy. The well-known German blogger Robert Basic had an idea “to do something” and asked what could be done. Many comments; different opinions. Everything was discussed in a Wiki and the idea of an international blogger day was born.
Christian Hahn [Hausser’s partner] and I found that this was a good idea to show the people in Burma our solidarity for their peaceful protests. To help the action to get better organized (the wiki was and is still very unorganized) we decided overnight to set up the domain and build a website.
OJR: And how have results been so far?
Hausser: It’s now in seven different languages, with an overwhelming success: Over 10,000 visitors came just in the first 24 hours, and over 30,000 visitors to date. The site [launched] Sunday.
The reason for so many visitors is a good working network. People spread the message within ours around the globe and many people joined.
And yes, the support was great! We reached many, many people in almost every country and had media coverage around the globe – all in 4 days.
OJR: What sort of goals have you set for the site?
Hausser: The situation in Burma is getting more and more quiet in the last days; not because of a better situation, but because the military is trying to avoid any outgoing communication.
We want to keep this “burning topic” on top in the media. The bloody pictures are getting fewer every day, and the media are losing their interest to report about the topic. We want so set a peaceful sign to keep it on peoples’ minds.
OJR: Do you have a sense of how effective the government shutdown of Internet and cell-phone lines has been? How long did it take to figure out that outside communications had been halted?
Hausser: We/the bloggers realized very quickly that there was no more connection to Burma. Hours later the media spread the news. And yes, it was effective. Most blogs about Burma are written outside Burma (see our blog list on f-b.org). the blogs inside stopped refreshing and the remaining bloggers are afraid for their lives. They have taken pictures of themselves down from their blogs so the government can’t find them. Everybody there is in danger.
OJR: What are citizen journalists in Myanmar doing now to get information out of the country? Have they been able to get around the government barriers? If so, how?
Hausser: Not sure. But we know that it is not easy. They talk/write less about Burma every day. We try to stop that.
OJR: How are the off-shore blogs and sites like yours dealing with the block of information flow?
Hausser: To be honest, currently I’m more and more dealing with interviews and communication than working for the page. The response is overwhelming, more than we ever expected.
OJR: You’ve really tried to spread the word with Wiki, Digg, Facebook, Flickr, etc. How successful have those social media tools been in spreading awareness?
Hausser: Facebook is not directly connected with us, but they are promoting the action. Top referrers are Stumbleupon and ko-htike.blogspot.com. We used Flickr for the graphics collection, and the wiki as a democratic element to collect ideas, translations and everything else.
OJR: Finally, do you have a particular, numeric goal in mind for the big Burma blog day on Oct. 4?
Hausser: No, nothing. The visitor counter is growing very rapidly, as are subscriptions (see the news page for updates). But like I said: This is more than we ever expected, and no one knows what’s going on today/tomorrow. But I’m sure it will be a lot!