Learning from students: Czech-Burmese mentorship

“Insufficient resources, a lack of proper identification and a need for further professional training are just a few of the deficiencies that Mizzima and its staff are forced to confront on a regular basis.”

This quote, taken from the article Who knows what the day may bring, describes some of the problems faced by Burmese exile media who have set up headquarters just behind the frontier, yet still inside the danger zone. Since the film Burma VJ has swept through film festivals and reaped an Oscar nomination, the self-sacrificing work of clandestine journalists in Burma has found its due recognition. Few people realize, however, that these undercover correspondents need to have a base in a safer country that enables them to work.

But how safe is a country that is safer than Burma? Even if an organization existed solely on the Internet, how protected could it be?

A heck of a hack

While the Internet was originally designed in such a way as to make it the least vulnerable to military attacks on particular nodes, it still seems to be quite easy to turn off specific critical web servers, for example by hacking the site or, if you cannot get access, by creating an avalanche of fake visitors so that the server will break down or take the site offline for its own protection. This form of attack is comparable easy, since all you need to do is to hijack a huge number of ordinary computers that are insufficiently secured.

Herdict on Burma

Why send the crackers 'round when it's easier to block access to a critical site? This chart compiles user submitted accessibility reports from Burma. Source: Herdict.org

These scenarios have repeatedly occurred to Burmese exile media such as the Irrawaddy, the DVB, and the New Era magazine. If you cannot afford huge servers around the globe, you have to resort to guerrilla tactics by reappearing at a new place whenever a site has been stamped out by brute cyber-force. Attacks like these should make us rethink our conviction that the vast virtual landscapes of the Net constitute a safe place for citizen engagement. Domination on the Web does not only materialize through huge corporations, controlling privacy and infrastructure; it can also mean to target disliked critics. This cyber war is led without faces, by “rogue hackers” hired from the anonymity of the Internet. Cyber hitmen don’t kill their victims. They zero them.

The Internet, however, has hinted a possible solution to us: Similar to the infrastructure, content can also be multiplied and redistributed, and every node is made redundant. If you search the Web, you will find a huge number of blogs and discussion groups about Burma: in English, in Burmese, in Burma’s ethnic languages. Burmese migrants have instinctively established networks as form of resistance, which are too messy to be controlled by a single force.

Of course, the face of journalism is changing when everyone can have his or her own blog and reproduce information with the dynamics of rumors. The ubiquitous availability of media technology requires the formation and adaptation of skills. Remember the dawning of the video cam, when the cheapness of material brought about long screenings of deadly boring films.

Two-way teaching in a mutual mentorship

Expertise online: Don't ask me. Ask Mizzima.

Many projects for developing countries have attracted criticism for following a top-down approach. In order to avoid these pitfalls, we have designed our project from an early stage of planning together with our on-site project partner Burma Centre Delhi. Activists, grassroots workers, and journalists from the exile community have a lot of experience to share, and only they know the situation both inside their country and in their present homelands.

When we plan to transfer expert knowledge to Burmese exile media, we therefore seek to use this opportunity to increase awareness among Czech and Indian journalists. For those who will go to India to exile media it will mean the same thing as for their Burmese counterparts: They will have to learn from their students. It is not an internship, it is a mutual mentorship.

We have selected the mentors from a choice of applicants whose high quality and past engagement made it difficult to reject anyone. I won’t tell you more about them for the moment. Soon enough, they will have their say in their own words.

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