Myanmar Blocks “Fake News” Websites Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

In March 2020, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Myanmar received a directive from the Ministry of Transport and Communications to block 230 websites, most of which contain adult content. However, 67 of these sites were blocked on the grounds of spreading “fake news”. The list of these 230 websites has not been published.

In an attempt to potentially identify the newly blocked websites, we analyzed OONI network measurements collected from Myanmar over the last months, between 1st January 2020 to 9th April 2020.

In this report, we share our findings based on the analysis of OONI data, confirming the DNS based blocking of 174 domains in Myanmar.

Background

Since opening up the market to the foreign telecom operators in 2013, Myanmar has experienced the connectivity revolution – unprecedented growth in internet connectivity and mobile services. While that change enabled millions of people to access the internet, providing new opportunities and services, it has also created new concerns for the people’s rights on the internet, particularly regarding freedom of expression and privacy.

Myanmar lacks a data protection law, even though civil society has been advocating for privacy protections over the years. In the absence of proper rule of law and a lawful interception framework, the authorities have confiscated devices from human rights defenders, activists, and journalists and pulled information from these devices. The government and military are also leveraging increasingly sophisticated surveillance hardware/software – putting activists and journalists at growing risk.

According to research published in March 2017 by the Open Observatory of Network Interference (OONI), Sinar Project, and the Myanmar ICT for Development Organization (MIDO), internet access was relatively unrestrained. Out of 1,927 sites that were tested for censorship in six local vantage points in Myanmar, only five sites presented TCP/IP and HTTP anomalies. No block pages were detected as part of that study that could confirm any instances of internet censorship in Myanmar.

However, in evaluating internet freedom levels more broadly, Freedom House gave Myanmar a score of 36 out of 100 (“Not Free” status), according to the Freedom on the Net 2019 report.

Internet shutdown

Nine townships in the Rakhine and Chin States experienced an internet shutdown that lasted over ten months (as of 30th April 2020), marking one of the world’s longest internet shutdowns.

On 2nd May 2020, the Myanmar Ministry of Transport and Communications (MoTC) allowed all operators to restore internet services in the Maungdaw township in Rakhine. However, the authorities ordered four townships (Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Myebon, and Paletwa) to remain under an internet shutdown until 1st August 2020 due to security reasons. It remains unclear if internet access can be restored in the remaining four townships (Ponnagyun, Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Minbya) that have been under an internet shutdown since 20th June 2019.

Blocking directive

In March 2020, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in Myanmar received a directive from the Ministry of Transport and Communications to block 230 websites.

Telenor Myanmar published a press release disclosing this blocking request by authorities and stating that they blocked access to 230 websites by serving a block page. They mention that they initially refrained from blocking access to sites that fell under the “fake news” category, but eventually complied with the blocking request following a risk assessment. Telenor Myanmar also notes that the blocking of “fake news” sites is part of a larger effort to tackle disinformation in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

The director general of the Directorate of Communications reportedly stated:

“Fake news and disinformation can easily undermine the stability of the state. At this moment, there are so many fake news stories about COVID-19 so we have very recently instructed operators [to block them].”

While Telenor Myanmar has been transparent about the blocking request, they have not disclosed the 230 blocked URLs yet.

Myanmar Now reported that the websites of the Myanmar Times and the Development Media Group (DMG) were blocked without any prior notice on 23rd and 24th March 2020. Similarly, Frontier reported in March 2020 that the government order to block around 50 “fake news” sites included ethnic media outlets, such as Rakhine-based Development Media Group (DMG) and Narinjara. They note that while the Myanmar Press Council recently published a list of online news outlets that allegedly spread disinformation, this list did not include recognised ethnic media outlets like DMG or Narinjara, both of which distribute up-to-date news on what is happening in Rakhine. On April 1st, Burma News International (BNI) also reported that online ethnic media outlets – Narinjara, Development Media Group (DMG), and Karen News – were blocked.

These new blockages occur amidst a global pandemic, when access to information is crucial. But as part of efforts to tackle disinformation, the Myanmar government issued directives to telecom operators in Myanmar to block access to websites that are viewed as spreading “fake news”. Neither the directives nor the affected URLs have been publicly disclosed, but recent reported blockages suggest ethnic media outlets are amongst these censored sites.

Methodology

OONI Probe is free and open source software designed to measure various forms of internet censorship, such as the blocking of websites, instant messaging apps, and circumvention tools. This tool has been run in Myanmar since 2012, and more than 244,700 network measurements have been collected from 31 local networks.

We previously analyzed all OONI measurements collected from Myanmar and published a research report in March 2017. At the time, we barely detected the blocking of any websites, and Blue Coat software (previously detected in late 2012) no longer appeared to be present on local tested networks.

To examine whether websites have more recently been blocked in Myanmar (particularly in light of the recent blocking directive), we analyzed all OONI measurements collected from Myanmar between 1st January 2020 to 9th April 2020.

This analysis involved OONI Probe Web Connectivity measurements collected from the following 6 networks in Myanmar: Telenor Myanmar (AS133385), Golden TMH Telecom (AS135307), Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (AS9988), Telecom International Myanmar (AS136255), RedLink Communications (AS133384), and Frontiir (AS58952).

However, as most OONI measurements during this period were primarily gathered from Telenor Myanmar (AS133385) and Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (AS9988), the findings are limited to these two networks.

Findings

Based on the analysis of OONI measurements collected from Myanmar, we confirm the DNS based blocking of 174 domains, a full list of which can be found in the appendix of this report.

Many of the blocked domains include news outlets, some of which are based in Rakhine, while the majority of the blocked domains contain adult content. Several insurgent group websites were confirmed blocked too. These include the Arakan Army website, the Palaung State Liberation Front website, and the Shan State Progress Party website.

Our analysis, including links to individual OONI measurements, is available through this CSV file.

We were able to confirm that these 174 domains (listed in the appendix) were blocked on Telenor Myanmar (AS133385) by means of DNS tampering. The blocking appears to be implemented at the DNS level because OONI measurements show that Telenor Myanmar returned the IP addresses of a Digital Ocean machine hosting the block page, instead of the real IP of the host. The IPs that are returned for block pages are: 167.172.4.60, 188.166.199.101, and 59.153.90.11.

Each of these three IP addresses hosts a slightly different block page, as illustrated through the following screenshots shared below.

Block page served in Myanmar

Image: Block page hosted on the IP 167.172.4.60.

Block page served in Myanmar

Image: Block page hosted on the IP 188.166.199.101 (screenshot taken on 9th April 2019).

Block page served in Myanmar

Image: Block page hosted on the IP 59.153.90.11.

While we were not able to confirm the blocking on the Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (AS9988) network, we observe that DNS requests to these sites consistently fail, strongly suggesting that the sites (listed in the appendix) are also blocked on this network.

We also analyzed OONI measurements collected from Myanmar prior to January 2020 (between 2017 to the end of 2019), but we did not find any significant blockages, suggesting that the censorship events discussed in this study only emerged over the last few months. However, the findings are limited by the relatively limited volume of collected measurements and the fact that many of the blocked sites were only added to the Citizen Lab’s test list for Myanmar in recent months.

Blocked news outlets

In February 2020, the Myanmar Press Council released a press statement including a list of sites viewed as spreading “fake news”. The remarks in this press release accuse most of these sites of copyright infringement.

Since the recent (aforementioned) blocking directive included many “fake news” sites, we decided to compare the news sites that we confirmed blocked as part of our analysis with the news sites listed as “fake news” by the Myanmar Press Council.

The following table does this comparison, as it includes the news outlets that we found blocked (providing relevant OONI measurements), along with a note on whether each of them was listed as a “fake news” site by the Myanmar Press Council.

Blocked domains Listed as “fake news” OONI measurements
www.dmgburmese.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.dmgburmese.com&probe_cc=MM
www.narinjara.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.narinjara.com&probe_cc=MM
karennews.org No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=karennews.org&probe_cc=MM
www.vom-news.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.vom-news.com&probe_cc=MM
rohingyakhobor.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=rohingyakhobor.com&probe_cc=MM
www.thestateless.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.thestateless.com&probe_cc=MM
www.rohingyanewsbank.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.rohingyanewsbank.com&probe_cc=MM
maharmedianews.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=maharmedianews.com&probe_cc=MM
www.myanmarpress.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.myanmarpress.com&probe_cc=MM
barnyarbarnyar.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=barnyarbarnyar.com&probe_cc=MM
burmachannel.website No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=burmachannel.website&probe_cc=MM
medicalsharing.website No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=medicalsharing.website&probe_cc=MM
mmrednews.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=mmrednews.com&probe_cc=MM
mmsportmyanmar.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=mmsportmyanmar.com&probe_cc=MM
mmtimenews.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=mmtimenews.com&probe_cc=MM
mmtimespecialnews.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=mmtimespecialnews.com&probe_cc=MM
nenow.in No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=nenow.in&probe_cc=MM
realthadin.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=realthadin.com&probe_cc=MM
santhitsa.net No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=santhitsa.net&probe_cc=MM
shweman.website No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=shweman.website&probe_cc=MM
sportmyanmarnews.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=sportmyanmarnews.com&probe_cc=MM
thatinhman.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=thatinhman.com&probe_cc=MM
thazinmedia.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=thazinmedia.com&probe_cc=MM
tipsmyanmarnews.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=tipsmyanmarnews.com&probe_cc=MM
topmmnews.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=topmmnews.com&probe_cc=MM
trend.lwinpyin.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=trend.lwinpyin.com&probe_cc=MM
www.chitsakar.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.chitsakar.com&probe_cc=MM
www.everytimestory.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.everytimestory.com&probe_cc=MM
www.innlaymedia.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.innlaymedia.com&probe_cc=MM
www.kbzmedia.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.kbzmedia.com&probe_cc=MM
www.myanmarnewsteam.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.myanmarnewsteam.com&probe_cc=MM
www.newsvsinformation.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.newsvsinformation.com&probe_cc=MM
www.phothutaw.com No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.phothutaw.com&probe_cc=MM
mc.warnaing.website No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=mc.warnaing.website&probe_cc=MM
celemedia.club No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=celemedia.club&probe_cc=MM
itechmedia.info No https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=itechmedia.info&probe_cc=MM
www.onlinelawka.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.onlinelawka.com&probe_cc=MM
shweyaunglan.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=shweyaunglan.com&probe_cc=MM
mckzonecelebrity.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=mckzonecelebrity.com&probe_cc=MM
kalaykalar.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=kalaykalar.com&probe_cc=MM
www.kalawnaryisin.com Yes https://explorer.ooni.org/search?until=2020-05-06&domain=www.kalawnaryisin.com&probe_cc=MM

From the above table, it is evident that out of 41 blocked news outlets, the majority of them (27 sites) were not listed as “fake news” by the Myanmar Press Council. However, it is possible that those sites may have been included in a blocklist shared by authorities with ISPs in Myanmar. Interestingly, some domains that are listed as “fake news” by the Myanmar Press Council remain accessible, such as myitter.net or mmlivenews.com (which was blocked on AS9988, but accessible on AS133385).

Ethnic media websites that were reported to be blocked – such as Development Media Group (DMG), Narinjara, and Karen News – are confirmed blocked by OONI data. The blocking of news outlets (as shared through the above table) includes media websites reporting on the situation in Rakhine, as well as Rohingya news sites, such as www.thestateless.com.

Conclusion

This study confirms the DNS based blocking of 174 domains by Telenor Myanmar (AS133385). Most of these domains contain adult content, but many of them include news outlets as well. While some of these news outlets have been listed as “fake news” by the Myanmar Press Council, it remains unclear if the remaining blocked news outlets are blocked on the grounds of spreading “fake news”, or on other grounds.

Telenor Myanmar disclosed that they blocked access to 230 websites, but the list of these URLs has not been published. It’s worth highlighting, though, that the 174 domains that are confirmed blocked as part of this study fall under the two major categories of sites that Telenor Myanmar mentioned that they are required to censor: pornography and news (which could potentially be viewed as “fake news”). It is therefore plausible that these 174 domains could be amongst the 230 sites that Telenor Myanmar recently blocked access to. This is further suggested by the fact that many of these sites only appear to have been blocked recently.

Authorities in Myanmar have defended the blocking of “fake news” as part of efforts to tackle disinformation around COVID-19. However, transparency around which URLs are specifically blocked (especially when they involve the sites of vulnerable communities) and why/how they are viewed as “fake news” is essential in ensuring press freedom, particularly amid a global pandemic when access to information is crucial.

View the original report.

Related Posts:

Send this to a friend