With conflicts escalating in Myanmar’s Kachin, Karen, Shan and Rakhine States, journalists’ access to those areas for reporting remained unsafe and restricted. Unable to get timely and accurate information from important sources, journalists in Myanmar are cornered into publishing imprecise news reports and ended up receiving “summary punishment” – being unceremoniously dismissed.
In order to shed light onto the conditions of journalists’ access to information under the new government, SEAPA interviews Thin Lei Win, co-founder of an oral history project “the Kite Tales” and founder of independent online news website Myanmar Now . Thin touches upon the challenges and risks journalists have faced for many years, including gender gaps in the field. She also shares her personal opinion on the incident of Fiona MacGregor, who was sacked by the Myanmar Times for her controversial report on rape cases in Rakhine State.
SEAPA: Do you think the state of access to information is progressing under the new government?
Thin: Unfortunately, access to information under the new government has not improved. I am saying this based on the most recent events in the country’s media landscape. Right after the election last year journalism is so much more important now than ever, even before than when the junta and the USDP government was in power. Before, journalists would criticize the government and the public likes it, because the public do not like the (then) government. And now that a popularly elected government is in power for the first time, I say, there are going to be problems between what the public wants to see and hear, and what the journalists will report, and what the government wants us to report. So, there is going to be a discrepancy. And, there is going to be differences in opinions.
It’s ironic that, the people in Myanmar for the first time in fifty years, now have so much information in their finger-tips. They are able to read what is happening around the world in a matter of seconds. It’s ironic that at this point of time when so many people in our country have more access to information that the journalists and the journalism is facing some of the biggest constraints we have seen.
The challenge for the media is to be criticizing and questioning a popularly elected government. And, for the first time, the public may not agree with us. And, I think, that’s exactly what’s happening at the moment. The role of journalist is to speak truth to power, to question power, to ask difficult questions to point out discrepancies, to challenge the power, to challenge the authority and to challenge the popular opinions that might not be really true. And, I think with what is happening in the country especially in terms of conflicts in the ethnic areas (for example, in Karen, and Kachin, and Northern Rakhine States), it has been so difficult for journalist to go those places. It has been difficult for journalists to actually get through for correct, unbiased, neutral information from both sides. It has been very, very difficult.
SEAPA: What can you say about the quality of information that people are receiving these days, and the way people are consuming information?
Thin: Journalists aren’t able to go to conflict zones. They are not able to go to Kachin State. They are not allowed to go to Northern Rakhine State. We know what has happen to people like Ko Par Gyi who tried to go (to conflict area). So, these are very important issues. Peace is a big theme with the new government. Peace and transparency, you can’t have one without other. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to get a lot of transparent answers or information from the new government on issues that directly affect peace. And, that is a big challenge and it is disappointing.
In a strange way, now that there is so much information. We are also getting so much wrong information. This is not just happening in Myanmar. This is happening around the world. We have seen that in the United Kingdom’s Brexit. We have seen that in America with the election of Donald Trump. There has been so much soul searching about wrong and fake news and information pretending to be real news. I think, that’s something happening in Myanmar as well.
There is so much information but people are only listening to one side or reading only the kinds that they would believe and agree with. They are not going out to actually actively find viewpoints and information that they disagree with, or things that challenge their thinking. So, you have all these wrong information, fake news and propaganda that is coming out, that people are taking in.
I think it is very dangerous in a country like Myanmar because communication was restricted strictly for so long. And the country has survived so many years in rumors. Now, we are supposed to be in a new era, open and transparent, and trusting each other. But, unfortunately, instead of that happening, what we are seeing is almost like a saturation of news and information, some of which are clearly not the truth. But, I think, (with regards to) the people’s ability to filter or even their willingness to filter that kind of information isn’t there yet.
SEAPA: Recently, Fiona MacGregor, investigative editor from the Myanmar Times was fired for her report on the rape cases in Rakhine State. What are your concerns?
Thin: I should say that this is my personal opinion that doesn’t represent any opinion of either any of my employers or any news agencies that I related to. I personally think that the sacking of Fiona MacGregor by the Myanmar Times for the story that she wrote, it has been a really bad, dangerous precedent for independent journalism in Myanmar. As journalist, we should be able to write things that the authorities do not want us to write about, and the kind of issues that people want to have coverage. We shouldn’t shy away from the controversial topics.
My worry is there is going to be a lot of self-censorship as a result of this, and it shows government pressure could have an impact on what kind of stories you write, what kind of news value that you put on.
SEAPA: What would be better way(s) to handle such a case, without restricting the media community from access to information?
Thin: The authorities have said that they did not put any pressure on it. But, they definitely singled out Fiona for her reporting. Some of the officials who were using social media must have seen all the threats and accusation towards Fiona and they did nothing to stop it. That would put fear on a lot of other journalists who want to write difficult stories. So, I am really concerned that this is going to set a bad precedent for everybody who wants to write difficult issues.
Now, of course, journalists are human beings. We make mistakes. Sometimes, we get our sources wrong. Sometimes, our sources lie to us and we get our story wrong. I would say that it is fair and fine to dispute a story. For me, personally, it would have been much more of a better solution if the government were– instead of singling out the individual reporter–to say this information is incorrect, and rebut point by point why it is incorrect. By using real evidence, not just to say that the army told us they didn’t do this and that’s not what happened. They should say, “No, we have interviewed local staffs, foreign NGOs, local residents, and army. We have interviewed as many people as we can, and this did not happen.” They need to be able to respond to allegations without resulting to individual attack.
And, I think, if they are saying this information is wrong, let the journalists in. Let the journalists go and see for themselves what is happening on the ground. When you restrict access, when you only have one sided press conferences and media releases, journalists are going to find what other sides said. That’s only fair. The government, on the other hand, will accuse if the journalists show only one side of the story.
So, if they wanted to resolve (that the story was wrong), firstly, they should rebut it with evidence (and) not just saying this is what we were told and therefore that is the truth. They should give quantifiable evidence as to why accusation was wrong; not subjective information. Secondly, they should allow journalists in those areas so that they could see for themselves. They could talk to the people themselves and write about what is really happening. When you can’t go to those places because of restrictions, it is very difficult for journalists to write a story that is going to be one hundred percent truth.
SEAPA: What are your views from the perspective of journalist safety? Is there an enabling environment for women journalists to do their job with confidence?
Thin: The gender gap as we know in Myanmar media landscape is pretty high. When I say gender gap, I meant the women in decision making roles, women covering what is considered really meaty sectors, and news. Studies have shown that at least half of (the number of) journalists in the country are women. But, very, very few are actually in managing editor positions or positions that can make real decisions. That has had an impact on women being able to cover important issues, and to actually see women’s issues as important. It (impacts) both ways in a sense that women issues are marginalized because women journalists are marginalized. My fear with what happened to Fiona is that suddenly employers and families are going to say it (journalism) is too dangerous for women. Now, you can’t do this job or you can no longer go to the field. I think, that would be the wrong lesson to learn.
What should be (the lesson) is that journalists from both sexes should get equal attention and respect, which I don’t think we get at this point of time. Women issues are also still being seen as marginal or only as victim issues. Personally I would like the take-away from this lesson (referring to Fiona’s case) for women journalists is that more and more of them say, ‘No, I want to cover more of this issue (about more women issues and suffering) because this is making people uncomfortable ’.
I want more women journalists to try and push their employers, the authorities, and the families to let them be actually more autonomous, to have more freedom to do reporting that they have.
Of course, that is not going to happen if the environment is not an enabling, but a restricted environment. Especially journalists in the ethnic regions where there are a lot of armed groups, you need to get them understand that (women) journalists deserve as much respect and safety as male journalists. You should treat them the same way. You need to make sure that the authorities see women journalists as deserving protection. You need get the employers to see if the journalist is very good, let him or her do the job regardless of (their gender). Unfortunately, this is something that’s going to take so long and it has to come from the media houses. It has to come from authorities. It has to come from local leaders, community leaders, and armed groups. It has to come from a wide range of stakeholders that make up this environment that we work in. Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon.
Thin Lei Win was born and raised in Yangon and has maintained a strong bond with Myanmar throughout her international journalism career. Thin set up Myanmar Now, an independent, bilingual news agency in 2015 after returning home from many years of working abroad for Thomson Reuters Foundation, the non-profit arm of Reuters news agency, specialising in humanitarian reporting. Thin is currently on sabbatical and co-founded The Kite Tales, a unique memory preservation project chronicling the lives and memories of ordinary people across Myanmar.
*The interview was conducted on November 14, 2016.