Free vs. hate speech online, from Washington to Myanmar

U.S. Congress to draw the line between free speech and criminal threat. Photo by: SalFalko / CC BY-NC

The United States Supreme Court may announce as soon as this week whether it will clarify the difference between free speech and a criminal threat to harm another person when it comes to messages people post online, on Twitter, Facebook and through other social media outlets.

A couple of high-profile cases — one, in which a man wrote about killing his wife in rap lyrics posted on Facebook, the other concerning a woman asserting her right to carry a weapon in language that forced schools to go on lockdown — have brought the issue to the fore in recent days.

But the thin line between free speech and hate speech is not only an American issue. It is a universal one. And the rapid pace of technological change in some parts of the world is forcing governments, citizens, and the international community to grapple with questions around ethics, technology, and communication at the same time they pursue policies and partnerships to promote the development and use of information and communications technology.

Myanmar presents just such a situation, albeit one made even more dramatic by the country’s deep legacy of government control over information and repression of speech, as well as current hostilities between a Buddhist majority and the country’s Islamic ethnic groups.

“The future of ICT in Myanmar” was the subject of a roundtable discussion last week at the Technology Salon in Washington, D.C., where policymakers, practitioners, private sector representatives and civil society members gathered to debate the role of foreign investment and aid in the former pariah state’s development and the unique challenges posed by Myanmar’s simultaneous transitions — from military rule to democracy and from near-silence on the Internet and mobile markets to what is expected to be near-universal access in the very near future.

What happens when those transitions converge against an historic backdrop of regional, ethnic and religious persecution, which continues to flare into violence today?

In recent weeks, Devex has featured insight and analysis related to the ongoing — in most cases nascent — economic, political and social reforms taking shape in Myanmar, a country where international investors and foreign aid groups alike are jockeying for position to guide the transition towards an open, robust economy and a more democratic government.

We’ve featured interviews with policymakers like Toily Kurbanov, the United Nations Development Program’s Myanmar country director, on-the-ground feature reporting on the challenges of aid coordination, and analysis of the country’s anticipated — and potentially troubled – telecommunications boom. At this week’s Devex Partnerships & Career Forum in Manila, the ICT revolution and its implications for democratic change was again a topic of discussion.

Myanmar’s sheer potential — a population of 53 million people, many of whom speak English, with dynamic economies as neighbors — has driven global enthusiasm for what a comprehensive reform effort might achieve. Nearly all international development NGOs and increasing numbers of multinational companies have established or expanded their presence in the Southeast Asian nation.

At the same time, some observers have questioned whether Myanmar’s government is as committed to reform and transparency as it is to rewarding political cronies with lucrative industry shares. Land-grabbing, corruption and human rights abuses threaten to transform Myanmar from development darling to global liability if foreign assistance and direct investment fails to create incentives for responsible growth.

ICT investment and development is poised to fundamentally alter Myanmar’s social and economic landscape, and the evolving arena of free speech and online communications in Myanmar has given rise to two movements — one divisive and damaging, the other a potential path towards peace and progress.

At last week’s Technology Salon meeting, attendees — who spoke anonymously, according to the forum’s rules for open conversation — noted that on Facebook and other online outlets, they have seen evidence of “a very well-organized propaganda campaign to foster fears” of Islamic groups in Myanmar.

The country’s censorship board has disappeared, according to one participant, and Myanmar’s citizens are flocking to Facebook, in particular, a website that many of Myanmar’s citizens equate with the entirety of the Internet.

“When you have a release of censorship, you have a population that is inherently more sensitive to the release of propaganda,” another attendee noted.

For Myanmar, that sensitivity can be very dangerous given a Buddhist-nationalist ideology prevalent among some segments of the Burman ethnic majority. Competition for land and resources often plays out along ethnic and religious lines, and some groups’ increasing interest in wielding new communication tools, spreading misinformation and promoting violence is an issue the international community must consider as it supports certain visions for reform and development.

What does that mean for the international development community and for private companies looking to support and invest in a robust telecommunications sector in Myanmar and elsewhere, meant to open up communication between people and to encourage transparency of their government? Is it enough to do no harm, or should international actors look to shape and influence the way that technologies are used in countries in the midst of social and political transition?

One answer comes from the second movement growing up around Myanmar’s telecommunications revolution — an anti-hate speech “flower” movement, initiated by Nay Phone Latt, a former political prisoner and executive director of the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization.

In a recent interview with The Irrawaddy, Latt said, “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.”

The U.S. Supreme Court may not agree with Latt if and when it considers the issue, but a number of aid groups are looking for ways to support grassroots education efforts — like Latt’s campaign against hate speech online — to pave the way for Myanmar’s citizens to reap the benefits of the information age, while foregoing its uglier side.

How can governments and other stakeholders address the challenges of online censorship, cyber-bullying and propaganda without curtailing free speech? What role should the international development community play? Join the discussion in our comments section.

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About the author

  • Igoe michael 1

    Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.