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Internet freedom dropped sharply in Myanmar after the military coup that ousted the country’s democratically elected government on Feb. 1, with Myanmar’s new military rulers cutting off online access and blocking social media platforms to contain opposition, Freedom House  said in an annual report on Tuesday.

Myanmar’s ranking in the rights group’s Freedom on the Net 2021 fell by 14 points,  dropping in one year from 31 to 17, the steepest decline recorded in one year in Freedom House reporting, the Washington D.C.-based group said in its report.

“As part of its attempt to crush dissent and maintain power, the military junta shut down internet service, blocked social media platforms and websites, seized control of the telecommunications infrastructure, and ramped up intrusive surveillance,” Freedom House said.

In an effort to contain spreading opposition to its overthrow of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD)-led civilian government, Myanmar’s Military Council moved quickly after Feb. 1 to block online comment urging resistance to its rule, the rights group said in its report.

“Internet connectivity was cut off every night from then until April, and mobile services were suspended entirely beginning in March, leaving only fixed-line and wireless broadband services available to users during the day.”

The junta also blocked social media accounts and forced service providers to hand over personal data, Freedom House said, adding that journalists, activists, and ordinary users have been detained and sometimes sent to prison for their online activity.

“Physical violence and torture have become widespread in detention, and disappearances of or public attacks on prominent social medial users served as additional deterrents to the expression of dissent online.”

Nevertheless, opponents of Myanmar’s military government continue to use digital tools to express their views and organize resistance to the ruling junta in whatever ways they can, Freedom House said.


'World's worst abuser'

In China, harsh prison terms for online dissent and independent reporting combined to place China, for the seventh year in a row, at the bottom of Freedom House’s rankings, the rights group said, calling the country “the world’s worst abuser of internet freedom.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic remains one of the most heavily censored topics,” Freedom House said, noting the 18-year prison term imposed on Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate businessman whose online criticism of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the pandemic had circulated widely.

“State media outlets, official social media accounts, and other actors with suspected government affiliations flooded the information space with false claims about the danger of US vaccines and the geographical origin of the virus,” according to the report.

Many in China also faced legal action for sharing news stories, speaking about their religious beliefs, or discussing politically sensitive matters with family members outside China, Freedom House said, adding that some users nevertheless “continued to test the boundaries of the state’s internet controls.”

Also receiving low rankings in the Freedom House report were Cambodia, rated “Partly Free” at 43 in the list, and Vietnam, rated “Not Free” at 22, where around two dozen citizens have been convicted and jailed for political offenses over social media posts since the beginning of this year.

Among those serving sentences for Facebook posts are journalists, bloggers, and ordinary citizens who posted complaints about coronavirus policies.

This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Richard Finney.