THE BLOG

Social Media and Its War on Censorship

Five Asian nations (Sri Lanka, Burma, Vietnam, China and North Korea) are currently ranked in the bottom twenty of the World Press Freedom Index released by Reporters Without Borders.

Local media organizations in these countries are either owned by the state, have links to prominent political figures or are simply outright censored in the publication or production of their news. With control over the media near absolute, the need for social media is greater now more than ever.

Social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are being utilized more and more by journalists, activists and citizens as a medium for news and information. Yet, this still has a long way to go before it can be considered a feasible alternative to mainstream media.

In Sri Lanka government regulations over media took a turn for the worst, earlier this year, with the introduction of a law indicating that news agencies must register their websites. These new regulations were introduced shortly after the government banned several websites which were allegedly carrying articles which were defamatory about the president and his family.

Similar steps are being taken in other Asian nations which are seeing an increased crackdown on the media. In Burma, up until August this year, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division was part of the Ministry of Information. Their job was plain and simple; to censor all news before it was published.

However, in August this year positive steps were taken by the Burmese government when they announced that journalists would no longer have to submit their work for censorship.

This is, in part, a reaction to the increased reliance placed on social media platforms by journalists in the country. The elections which were held in Burma in the first half of this year saw journalists exploit social media in reporting the results. To overcome the censorship laws, the media reported their news via Twitter and Facebook. This allowed the public and the rest of the world to get a clearer picture of what was going on at the ground level.

The decision by the government to relax the censorship of media is certainly a victory, and one which can be traced back to the use of social media.

Of course shifting the news to social media in these countries is not as easy as it would seem. In China, the government has cracked down on social media platforms blocking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The authorities went one step further and introduced their own social media platform, Weibo, a highly controlled micro-blogging website. This allows China's citizens to keep pace with the growing world of the internet, while ensuring its content is regulated.

In Vietnam, the situation is not as bleak; the crackdown on the social media websites has been anything but successful. Most journalists and citizens have been able to bypass the bans, allowing themselves to create a virtual society free of censorship. In fact, despite the ban on Facebook, Vietnam has over nine million users, leaving it 23rd in the list of countries using the site.

While citizens from these countries are demonstrating varying degrees of success in the use of social media, there is still much to be done.

The Arab Spring was a shining example of how strong social media can be when used effectively. While social media was certainly not the starting point of the uprisings across the Middle East, it played an invaluable role in spreading the message. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube were all effectively utilized in organizing protests, reporting news that would have otherwise been censored and gathering support from the rest of the world.

Social media users in the Middle East left state censors overwhelmed and unable to do their job.

If the war on media censorship in Asia is to be won, it must be done through the use of tools such as these social media platforms.