The Myanmar Press Council announced Tuesday that it will focus on exposing people in Myanmar who produce fake news to manipulate public opinion, following the filing of a complaint by authorities in Mandalay region about an apparently phony social media report critical of the local government.
The report about the business community questioning the legitimacy of tenders won by companies owned by the regional chief minister’s family was published on the Facebook page of the Daily News Myanmar on Nov. 11.
The MPC — an independent media adjudication body that mediates press disputes, promotes journalism ethics, and protects journalists — began an inquiry after the Mandalay regional government secretary filed a request on Nov. 16 on behalf of Chief Minister Zaw Myint Maung for the council to review the matter.
The MPC said in a statement that it contacted a Facebook team based in Singapore to find out if the news page is legitimate.
Its inquiry, however, determined that the so-called Daily News Myanmar had no original domain and originated from two Facebook pages linked to websites called “Ginger” and “DNM.”
In the wake of the incident, the MPC announced that it will expose fake news report and anyone who fails to adhere to media ethics.
MPC member Myint Kyaw said that while the council’s mandate allows it to disclose fake news sources, Myanmar authorities must investigate and pursue legal action against those who publish phony reports.
“People are getting confused about whether some who publish reports are legitimate media or not,” he said. “Some [websites] claim to be media, but they contain no information about contacts or their intentions. They may have business, politics, religion, or racial intentions.”
Pursuing charges against those who violate the Media Law is “something the government should handle with regard to security or any other relevant issues,” he said.
‘Harmful to the public’
One lawmaker said he believes that the MPC should cooperate with the government in its efforts to ferret out phony news.
“There were cases in the past such as spreading hate speech online, inciting political instability, and fomenting violence, said Yangon region lawmaker Nay Phoe Latt. “But now it's not just spreading only hate speech, but also creating fake news and online pages on purpose.”
“It can be harmful to the public if someone unintentionally redistributes such fake news, so the MPC should be mindful about distinguishing between genuine and fake news,” he said.
Yin Min Hlaing, a ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party legislator who represents Magway region’s Gangaw township in the union parliament, urged the government in October 2017 to monitor online activity, arguing that irresponsible use of the internet could disrupt law and order and corrupt morals.
Four months later, Myanmar’s Ministry of Transport and Communications created a Social Media Monitoring Team (SMMT) to review social media accounts for fake reports, though it has yet to take any action against anyone.
Transport and Communications Minister Thant Sin Maung said in March that the government would spend more than 6.4 billion kyats (U.S. $4 million) to set up a social media monitoring system.
‘A huge issue’
During a session in the national parliament on Tuesday, lawmaker Maung Thin from the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) questioned the government’s monitoring of social media accounts and and asked whether the SMMT’s funding is in accordance with the policy of the President’s Special Budget, which must be used for emergency disaster management.
He also questioned what the government’s social media watchdog project has done so far.
Maung Thin requested that the government inform legislators about whether the SMMT’s procedures could infringe upon people’s rights and communication and asked which agencies are using the technology, equipment, and machines that are included in the team’s budget.
Kyaw Myo, deputy minister for transport and communications, defended the creation of the SMMT as a necessary measure to ensure Myanmar’s security, stability, and peace, and the rule of law, and said that the team operates in accordance with the constitution, other existing laws, and the policy of President’s Special Budget.
Facebook has been blamed by the international community for creating problems in Myanmar by not cracking down on those who use the social media platform to spread hateful or inflammatory reports and news, he said.
“It is a huge issue, and the SMMT is still young because it was formed in February,” Kyaw Myo said. “We have to be patient.”
The technology requirements for the SMMT are high, and it will become more effective when we get used to it,” he said. “We will let people know what we do then.”
Maung Thin told RFA after the parliamentary session that he was displeased with the responses he received.
He pointed out that one stated objective of the SMMT is to control hate speech, but said that some people continue to use the images of Buddha and prominent abbots in inappropriate ways on social media and that many accounts of those who attack Buddhism are still on Facebook in Myanmar.
Hate speech against Muslims
But human rights groups and others outside Myanmar point to the much larger problem of Facebook being used to disseminate hate speech against Muslims — particularly the stateless and persecuted Rohingya in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state — and its role in contributing to violent attacks against the minority population in the Buddhist-majority country in recent years.
Hate speech flared up on Facebook during a military crackdown on the Rohingya in Rakhine state that began in August 2017 in response to deadly attacks by a Muslim militant group. The brutal campaign, which included killings, rape and arson, left thousands dead and drove more than 720,000 Rohingya across the border to Bangladesh.
After evidence emerged that Facebook posts containing anti-Rohingya hate speech and misinformation written by supporters of the nationalist Buddhist group Ma Ba Tha spiked during the crackdown, the U.S. social media company pledged to hire more Myanmar speakers to review posts and shut down some accounts of ultranationalist monks.
But an investigation by Reuters news agency in August 2018 found that Facebook’s efforts to crack down on the mounting hate speech crisis in Myanmar, where about 18 million people use the social media platform, have been inadequate.
Reuters in conjunction with Human Rights Center at the University of California-Berkeley School of Law complied more than 1,000 examples of anti-Muslim and anti-Rohingya posts, comments, images and videos, that were live on Facebook at the time, including material that had been on the site for six years.
Reported by Htet Aarkar and Win Ko Ko Latt for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Nandar Chann. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.