The Myanmar government should immediately lift all internet restrictions in eight townships in Rakhine and Chin States that is affecting more than a million people living in a conflict zone, a rights group said on Friday.
Human Rights Watch said the internet shutdown, which began on June 21, 2019, along with restrictions on access by aid agencies, has meant that people in some villages are unaware of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Local groups report that the shutdown has made it difficult to coordinate the distribution of aid to conflict-affected communities, and to communicate with their field teams to ensure staff safety.
A local editor also added that the shutdown greatly impedes media coverage of the fighting between the Myanmar military and the ethnic Arakan Army, making it hard for villagers to get up-to-date information.
“Myanmar should immediately end what is now the world’s longest government-enforced internet shutdown,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser at Human Rights Watch.
The government temporarily lifted restrictions in five townships from September 2019 until February 2020, when they were reinstated. On May 02, the authorities lifted the restrictions in Maungdaw.
On June 12, the Ministry of Transportation and Communications announced the government would extend the internet shutdown until at least August 01, citing security concerns.
“We will restore internet service if there are no more threats to the public or violations of the telecommunications law,” said Soe Thein, the ministry’s permanent secretary, at a media briefing.
Article 77 of Myanmar’s Telecommunications Law authorizes the Ministry of Transport and Communications to suspend a telecommunications service or restrict certain forms of communication during “an emergency” situation.
But the broadly worded law should be amended to bring it in line with international standards to protect freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch said.
Internet access plays a crucial role in enabling people to access information about Covid-19 and self-quarantine, and to observe other protocols to prevent the spread of the virus. A coalition of nongovernmental organizations has appealed to the World Health Organization (WHO) to urge Myanmar to end the internet shutdowns amid the pandemic.
Aid groups told Human Rights Watch they feared that shortages of food and water were underreported in many villages in Chin and Rakhine States due to the communications blackout. They also said that in some communities, family members had not been able to send digital payments or contact friends and relatives in conflict areas.
Internet restrictions have also made it more difficult for the news media to safely gather information and promptly disseminate it.
“It is affecting not just the daily activity of our reporting but also for getting news and fact-finding,” said Aung Marm Oo, editor of the Sittwe-based Development Media Group. “Even though our reporters went to conflict-affected areas and interviewed reliable sources, it is difficult to send the material back to the office because they don’t have internet access.”
In addition to the mobile internet, the Myanmar authorities have ordered the blocking of websites of independent and ethnic news media, among many other sites.
Telecommunications operators and internet service providers received five directives from the Transport and Communications Ministry to block 2,172 specific websites, of which 92 were alleged to provide “fake news.” Independent and ethnic media sites such as Development Media Group, Narinjara News, Karen News, and Voice of Myanmar were among those ordered blocked.
The government contends that the mobile internet shutdown does not disrupt the dissemination of information because people in affected areas can use mobile SMS services and public address systems to receive government information. The internet can also be accessed in some locations via fixed connections.
In January, UN human rights experts said in Myanmar, “The blanket suspension of mobile internet cannot be justified and must end immediately.”
“For a year now, the internet shutdown has severely impacted the rights of over a million people in Rakhine and Chin States,” Lakhdhir said. “The government should lift the shutdown, unblock websites, and amend the Telecommunications Law to bring it in line with international standards.” (Source: HRW)