Hacking authoritarian regimes with simple technology

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When it comes to freedom of expression, the Internet is seen as either a place of liberty or anarchy, depending on your point of view.

While authoritarian regimes regard it as a dangerous hole in their control net, today activists from all over the world use it to voice their dissent and overcome censorship.

For many years, Chinese Internet users have been using Virtual Private Networks (VPN) to encrypt their connection and bypass the Great Firewall of China, the government's network security system. At the end of 2014, the pro-democracy protesters of Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement communicated through FireChat, a smartphone app that allows users to send text messages 'off-the-grid' using a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi link instead of a standard Internet connection.

Twitter was the Arab Spring's social network of choice, and in the 90s the Zapatista movement used the Internet to promote change in the Chiapas region of Mexico, as local NGOs were able to send out hundreds of eyewitness reports through the Net.

But technology was a powerful ally of dissent before the Internet-era too, and the history of the independent news organisation Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) shows how simple technologies can help bypass censorship and promote democracy and human rights. Its first weapon was radio.

Democratic Voice of Burma's newsroom in Thailand

At a first glance, the DVB newsroom looks like any other in the world. Journalists are chatting, phoning, sharing stories, checking emails and watching the BBC News on a TV screen. But when it was founded things could not have been more different.

From 1962 to 2011, Burma — now Myanmar — was isolated from the rest of the world. It was one of Asia's poorest nations, ruled by a military junta who seized power through violence. Its recipe for socialism consisted of a single party, a nationalised economy, and no independent press.

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Aye Chan Naing, DVB's executive director and chief editor, supervises the work of a colleague

Aye Chan Naing, DVB's executive director and chief editor, started working as a journalist after the anti-government riots in 1988 that were repressed violently by the junta, killing more than 3,000 people. At the time Naing was studying dentistry, but he decided to change his life course and join a guerrilla group, so he fled to Thailand. On arriving in Thailand, however, he did not become a soldier. Instead, he started writing articles to inform the world about what was happening inside Burma.

In 1989 the military declared martial law, arrested thousands of pro-democracy and human rights campaigners, changed the name of Burma to Myanmar, renamed Rangoon 'Yangon', and placed Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy, under house arrest.

To avoid censorship Naing moved to Norway and together with a small group of journalists he founded DVB, setting up newsrooms in Norway and Thailand.

Morning meeting in DVB's Thai newsroom, which has one radio studio and two TV studios

In July 1992 DVB went on air for the first time, broadcasting from Oslo, Norway. At that time it was solely an independent radio station, airing radio bulletins twice a day. Clandestine journalists gathered stories from inside Myanmar and sent their reports to Norway and Thailand, where the news was edited and transmitted back to Myanmar.

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DVB's control room in Thailand

For many years shortwave radio — radio frequencies that can travel long distances because the waves reflect off the upper atmosphere and further around the Earth — was one of the only ways to get independent information into Myanmar. It was only thanks to this technology that Burmese people could find out what the regime was doing in their country, including the abuse of human rights and oppression of dissent.

DVB expanded over time and launched its website in the late 90s. In 2005 it started to broadcast satellite TV. In the meantime, with the audience for shortwave radio dropping each year, DVB switched from shortwave to online radio in October 2014.

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A news presenter prepares for the news bulletin

DVB was introduced to a wider global audience during the 2007 'Saffron Revolution', when Buddhist monks led a series of anti-government protests. These demonstrations were crushed by the military, and coverage of the protests inside Myanmar was heavily censored. But despite risking jail and torture, undercover DVB journalists armed with small, hand-held cameras and mobile phones managed to smuggle images and stories to the international media.

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Stickers on the newsroom wall

DVB’s work inspired the Oscar-nominated Danish documentary Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country. According to the UK’s newspaper The Observer, the documentary “demonstrates what can be done through the ingenious use of small cameras and mobile phones by brave, resourceful opponents of repressive regimes”.

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Presenting the news bulletin

In 2008 DVB's coverage of Cyclone Nargis played an important role in raising domestic and international awareness about the humanitarian crisis that was unfolding in Burma. Despite this, in June 2010 Myanmar's Foreign Ministry described DVB as "a news agency manufacturing slanderous news reports against Myanmar. It is a killer broadcasting station that is hatching evil plots and sowing hatred between Myanmar and the international community and among the Myanmar national people". In October of the same year DVB was short-listed for the Nobel Peace Prize.

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Sharing stories

2010 was a milestone in Myanmar's history. In November the Burmese people voted in the first general election for 20 years. The junta proclaimed it the starting point of a democratic process, but opposition groups accused the military of electoral fraud and say the country is still a long way from democracy.
Nevertheless, the junta has eased its censorship, and in 2012 Naing and other DVB journalists returned to their homeland.

Checking Myanmar's map

According to Naing, the most important technical revolutions in DVB's history were the use of mobile technology and the advent of the web. “The spread of the internet and mobile phones in Burma changed the way DVB used to report on events,” he tells SciDev.Net. Today, DVB connects over 2000 citizen journalists across Burma, and trains local journalists through practical courses to expand its network of contributors. In the past two years, DVB has trained more than 200 local journalists.

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Journalists at work

Myanmar has one of the lowest levels of telecommunications and Internet access in the world. According to the World Bank, today only one out of 100 people in Burma have Internet access. Nevertheless, DVB uses footage from citizen journalists in Myanmar taken using cheap mobile phones. It also uses satellite Internet connection in emergencies to bypass local internet control, "but this is not a cheap solution,” says Naing.

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Editing a news bulletin

“The biggest technical problem for DVB has been poor telecommunication, the solution has been to bundle several SIM cards to increase Internet bandwidth," says Naing.

Editing a documentary shot in Mandalay, Myanmar

Today DVB has two newsrooms: one in Myanmar and one in Thailand. DVB journalists report in both Burmese and English, and through the Internet reach a global audience.

According to Arne Hintz, who researches media activism and technological change at the UK-based Cardiff University, DVB's use of radio adds to a long list of examples of how technology helps overcome obstacles of censorship. For instance, print publications were used in communist states allied with the former Soviet Union, and cassette tapes were used in Iran in the 1970s.

Hintz says that DBV’s use of technology resembles the Cold War broadcast operations of Radio Free Europe, which broadcasted alternative news from Western to Eastern Europe.

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Expats and Burmese journalists working together

“As a broadcast enterprise with the goal of transmitting into a country with a restricted media landscape, DVB may have more in common with these earlier experiences than with the grassroots-based, decentralised and anarchic use of social media by protesters during the Arab Spring or other recent protest events,” Hintz tells SciDev.Net.

But he cautioned that social media was not as important to people during the Arab Spring as international debate might suggest. “Even though the use of social media has been the focus of international debate with regards to uprisings such as the Arab Spring, many people inside Tunisia or Egypt got their information about the protests and the criticism of the political regimes from broadcasts by Al-Jazeera.”

He also notes the limits of technological platforms, including the reality of mass surveillance. .

“Online communication and social media platforms are increasingly restricted and under surveillance. Both social media companies and the state are monitoring what we are doing online and are restricting free speech. The current trend is towards more surveillance, more censorship, and fewer opportunities to voice dissent, not the other way around,” he says.

But activists can still find help in technology, argues Hintz. The Internet offers many options, for example encryption software to enable anonymous communication such as TOR, PGP, or Textsecure.

“For digital media users who are interested in spreading dissident information, this requires awareness of what type of information is being monitored and how to communicate anonymously,” he adds.