Interview: Culture and Independence in Myanmar’s Newsrooms yet to Improve

Wai Mar Theint is the secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), which was established to defend media rights. She also works as a freelance media trainer for MJN providing various journalism courses across the country.

She became a journalist in 2006. She was a reporter, and later an editor, for the Yangon Media Group’s Yangon Times Journal and newspaper, Flower News Journal, and Mizzima News’ Burmese Section. For three months, she also worked with a local private broadcast station. She is an expert on reporting a wide range of socio-political issues including the parliament, elections, and extractive industries.

Freelance Media Trainer Wai Mar Theint

Freelance Media Trainer Wai Mar Theint

In this interview, she recalled her decade-long newsroom experience both as a reporter and an editor. These are her views on media ownership and editorial independence, women journalists and their struggles particularly in creating more space for them inside and outside the newsroom.

Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA): How important is it to have editorial independence in newsrooms especially in the current situation of the country?

Wai: It is very important to have an independent newsroom in which editors can make their decisions freely. Currently, even under the new government, media houses continue to collapse because of economic and political pressures. The newsroom management should be free from the owners’ or chief-editors’ intention of gaining personal profit. Editors should demand their full authority to manage the newsroom on official papers.

Although there is a media law, now many (criminal) cases have been filed against the media by another media, or private firms, or state sectors. This show that newsrooms have to improve their independent practices in ethical reporting, with a stronger journalism stand.

SEAPA: What is your newsroom experiences on working towards editorial independence?

Wai: With my first newsroom in the Yangon Media Group, I worked for the political section. I found no pressure on (my reporting). I was able to exercise my learnings and knowledge from the journalism courses that I (took). I got freedom to report. I had full authority to cover (any event or issue) for my section. Later when I moved to other newsrooms, I covered other news sections but not the political beat. There, I started having a different experience of news writing from what I understood. My supervising editor asked me to write only the part they wanted to highlight instead of covering the whole picture. I felt like (we had to make up stories) as we (try to pave the way for what we wanted). For me, news should be covered as it happened, not as how we planned beforehand. Sometimes, the news reports from me and other reporters appeared differently from the way we first composed (them). This showed that we were not able to report independently. wai-mar-theint-quote-01

Sometimes, journalists do not want to do if the reporting is not as it happened. But, there is a problem of meeting certain numbers of reports/news in a month. If journalists do not meet their quota of news, their salary is deducted. So, I have to let those news pass because I cannot let my reporters suffer should their salary be deducted.

Later when I joined the broadcast station, I found out that the quality of journalism was very weak — with no editorial independence. There were a lot of restrictions for news reporting based on real journalism skills. So, I quit the station because my initial expectation to learn and broaden my journalism quality seemed impossible in such place.

SEAPA: How do you see and rate the situation of editorial independence in the country?

Wai: Actually, the practice of editorial independence is still very weak. We can see that editorial independence is generally (limited). Also, in big media houses, there is not much freedom in newsroom management. Besides, from my other sources and observation, some media houses chase after the project-based assignments, while there are many social issues on the ground to cover. For some media, they cover mostly events, or their direction will be according to (the interest of) their owners or who have full authority. I have to say that we haven’t (gotten) enough chance to report (what is happening) on the ground and what the public really wants and needs to know.

SEAPA: How do you view the relation between the issues of ownership and editorial independence?

Wai:  I have heard that owners have direct influence on (how) some media houses (run). Owners set the guidelines on (what kind of and how) news and opinion (are written or aired), and the rest have to follow. Some (have indirect) influence. But, people see (that there are more) direct (than indirect) influence.

For owners, they have to consider the (political and economic) factors in sustaining their papers. Though there is a line (separating the) newsroom (from) the owners, (it would seem that there will always be more employees that tend) to follow the owners’ will. These people hold the higher positions and perform according to the owners’ guideline. So, it is not surprising (when) some critical news (do) not appear in the papers although journalists wrote about it.

Lately, the political and economic factors play a major role on the (sustainability) issues of the media. A considerable number of media, which were weekly journals and daily newspapers, collapsed in recent years. To (continue the business), some media have to bend to and rely on advertisements and write for (advertisers). We have seen many journals practicing “yellow journalism,” unethical news reporting. So, editorial independence is (questioned when) looking at collapsed or ongoing media houses.

SEAPA: Do you think that most media are running only for business purposes rather than for news to provide information that people should know?

Wai: All media are for business. But, there are media that write on many issues and (they still) have to follow what the public like and (will) read as they target to raise (their) sale. What people like to read might not always be correct from an ethical journalism standpoint. News from such media are weak in (terms of ethics, like their lack of balance). After the post-censorship period, (there are) a lot of challenges (related to) the survival of media and it is natural for owners to bend towards (the business side).

SEAPA: From your experience, how do newsrooms welcome and accept the skills and knowledge of women journalists?

Wai: It is very difficult for women to become editors. From my own experience, men journalists — (who joined the team later than I did) — became editors first. Because I am a woman, I am not promoted as an editor though I am the competent person in the field. A normal excuse from the media houses is that women cannot stay late at night or sleep overnight for the final news compilation before printing. For me, I can take responsibility for my sector, like other men editors do. This is a learning process for both men and women. Later, I became an editor only (after a lot of push). wai-mar-theint-quote-04

Culturally, women are not well-respected in the newsrooms. Women’s knowledge and capacity are not appreciated; and women are easily humiliated in some circumstances whether work-related or not. From my experience, I felt like I was harassed by their (men journalists’) words and expression. Overall, it is very obvious (that there is not enough) space for women journalists’ development in many newsrooms. I feel that the space for women is shrinking just by not being recognized (for our abilities). We don’t have an equal opportunity as our counterparts. That make women journalists feel self-doubt in pushing the boundaries.

Actually, many women journalists are contributing a lot of ground work in many media houses. But, women journalists still receive all kinds of discrimination against them. There are many occasions where women take more workload and responsibilities than men journalists. The conducive environment for women journalists’ development is very rare. And, very few newsrooms have a supportive atmosphere. I have to say that the culture of encouragement for women journalists is still weak.

SEAPA: What do you suggest regarding women’s space in the newsrooms?

Wai: For me, having a sense of gender balance in the newsrooms is essential. Women shouldn’t be seen as a subhuman. Women journalists can write what their counterparts can. Like men journalists (have their capacities), so do women journalists.

Besides, women journalists should have access to various resources including trainings in newsroom management, editorial (process), understanding thematic issues, and gender awareness. And, it is suitable for women to join workshops on leadership skills.

wai-mar-theint-quote-03

Though women have weaknesses physically, our reasoning and commitment are strong for our profession. So, newsrooms and the working environment should be improved to have equal rights and opportunities for both women and men journalists. Newsrooms should have a gender policy and also allow women journalists to take initiatives (given that they have) equal capacity as the men (journalists). Women would never reach the front row if they are always left behind just because they are “women.”

Next, the active participation of women journalists in (media-related) networks and organizations should be (encouraged). We should organize town-hall and roundtable meetings where women take leadership roles in discussions. Currently, women’s initiative and active participation are still insufficient. There are a considerable number of women journalists in media organizations. If women get the same opportunities as men, I believe, we can show that our capacity (to succeed) is not lower than our counterparts.

A woman participant shared her view on limitations against women journalists in Myanmar (Photo: Nai Nai)

At Myanmar’s 5th Media Development Conference in Yangon, a woman participant shared her view on limitations against women journalists in Myanmar (Photo: Nai Nai)

*Interview on 13 November 2016.