Burma’s military regime continues to push for what the opposition and journalists both inside the country and on exile call a one-sided election later this year. Whether this election will really take place or not, whether this poll will be fair or not, one concern among Burmese journalists is the coverage of the events.
The last election in Burma was held 20 years ago. Today’s young journalists thus have no experience on election reporting. Fewer among their seniors witnessed or participated in this event decades ago—but mostly as voters, not as journalists.
In order to provide Burmese journalists a learning opportunity through actual coverage of an election, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) organized a group of Burmese exile journalists to observe the national elections in the Philippines in May this year.
From the trip, the journalists will be able to gain knowledge of how the Philippine media prepared for its coverage of the election. The observer are expected to share with their colleagues in Burma both basic and new ways of reporting on the upcoming election.
The observation group included journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima News and Irrawaddy Online news. SEAPA brought the group to various local media organizations; from news publications and TV and radio stations, to news monitoring organizations, to provide the observers an idea how Philippine news outlets cover the election.
The view of posters and flyers displayed along the main roads and streets gave the group a heightened sense of the so-called “election fever” in the Philippines. These posters, billboards and flyers are among the basic tools of candidates to reach the public. In Burma, political parties are required to submit their campaign materials to the Press Registration and Scrutiny Division (Censor) office for approval before they can post the materials publicly.
From the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), the group received a briefing on the Philippine political landscape and a profile of the candidates for president. The PCIJ said that part of their preparation for the election coverage is the recruitment of more interns from several universities, preferably journalism students. They also prepared outlines of several investigative reports and assigned small working groups to be stationed in particular areas. The observers learned more about investigative reporting from PCIJ and its value as a tool.
The group then visited the online newsroom of media giant
GMA-7, where the Burmese journalists found a different working environment. It was a “big family”, with around 30 reporters handling a wide variety of tasks under tremendous pressure since they are working for both the broadcast and online media.
The Burmese journalists observed how the GMA-7 team conducted
newsroom management and planning sessions for the election coverage. They saw how labor was divided among the staff, with each one assigned specific tasks, from news coverage in the field, editing, photography, mapping, to monitoring the new media tools like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. They were also impressed with the high-tech communication between field reporters and the studio. Visiting the GMA-7 online newsroom reminded the Burmese journalists of the importance of effective communication among reporters, point-persons, specific news sections and the news organization as a whole.
Next, the group dropped by the Rock Ed FM radio station, which features an alternative education program for younger listeners.
“We bring the issues and information to where the public is, instead of waiting for them to come and search” said the station manager.
Every Thursday, the FM station airs a two-hour issue-based, discussion program that tackled short- and long-term problems in the country. Volunteers from a wide range of professions help run the station’s program.
TheCenter for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) focuses on promoting professionalism and ethics in the media. From the CMFR staff, the group learned the importance of monitoring the news, whether print, broadcast or online.
The group was also impressed with CMFR’s interactive online mapping system on journalist killings, which could be a very useful tool for the Burma election database.
Later on, the Burmese journalists joined the “miting de avance” or final campaign rally of president-elect Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III, at the Quezon City Memorial Center on the evening of May 7. Thousands of people, young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, gathered to show their heartfelt support for Aquino. The trip to the Philippines would not have been significant, many in the group agreed, if they have not attended this campaign rally. The euphoria and excitement everyone felt in the rally had not been felt in Burma for a long time. It was the happiness of freely expressing one’s support for the candidate one really believed to be capable of leading the country. One of the participants was overwhelmed with joy and trembled in tears. It was an unforgettable experience for everyone.
As part of the trip agenda, the group visited the office of the “Philippine Daily Inquirer”, the leading English-language newspapers in Philippines. The learning here was the daily workflow of a big newspaper’s newsroom – from the field reporters who covered the news and filed the stories to the editors at the office, to the editors who finalized the day’s edition and sent them to the printing press or upload them on the website. It was not surprising to know that more than 300 reporters were working from various provinces of Philippines, to feed the “Inquirer” with updates.
On election day, the Burmese journalists went to an election precinct located in a public school in MetroManila. They observed how Filipino voters braved the heat of summer for several hours as they lined up to vote. Some of the journalists talked to several public school teachers manning the precincts. After learning that they are Burmese, one teacher wished them well with the upcoming election in Burma.
The group then went back to the GMA-7 station, to be overwhelmed by the sight of the live-coverage in the field being coordinated from the studios, the exchange between war-rooms and program studios, the communication between field reporters and their producers. The overall coverage was run by more than 800 media personnel.
Last but not the least, the group spent time with Vera Files, an online investigative news group, which created networks among local reporters, NGOs and civil society groups. Vera Files also provided training for local NGOs and reporters on election-related news and data collection. The organization’s strength lay in their being technical-savvy and the excellent way they use local knowledge despite their organization’s limitations on staff and finances.
One important observation made by
the group is that every media organization applied new media tools like blogs, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, text messages and other online tools, in just about everywhere. However, the level of prioritizing information from these tools was different. Some organizations still put trust on manual data collection and verification process, while some relied on online sources. However, every organization agreed upon the vital role of the new media.
Overall, the observation trip enabled the Burmese journalists to gain knowledge and experiences, and even stirred their emotions about election and its coverage. The group witnessed a political party’s last campaign rally, an event that is an essential part of the election process. The journalists learned the different roles and responsibilities of media organizations that enjoy press freedom. It was also important to understand the constructive contribution of independent online media groups. An alternative education FM program is also an important tool in preparing citizens for an election.
Aside from this, members of the group
learned more about key concepts like management of a news team, communication among the organization’s network and professional, on-time dissemination of credible news to the public .
When the group returned to their organizations, they could to recommend a few insight in preparation of Burma’s upcoming election, such as forming the mobile phone-equipped networks inside Burma, creating a common website where the network could submit verified information, deploying more election observers and assigning more local reporters across Burma, and organizing a team that will provide election-related information throughout the country.
SEAPA (www.seapa.org) is the only regional organization with the specific mandate of promoting and protecting press freedom in Southeast Asia. It is composed of the Jakarta-based Alliance of Independent Journalists (AJI) and the Institute for Studies on the Free Flow if Information (ISAI); the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility and Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism; the Bangkok-based Thai Journalists Association; and the network’s Kuala Lumpur-based associate member, the Centre for Independent Journalism.