The COVID-19 pandemic becomes an immediate threat for survival of many journalists in Myanmar on top of many other existing issues within the country’s journalism field. Less than 2 months after the pandemic hits the country in late March, the media industry has rapidly reached a point of laying off many journalists, reducing salaries or not able to pay at all, and some shut down their media houses. Meanwhile, many dismissed journalists concern that they might never return to their jobs after the pandemic is completely over.
Myanmar’s government announced its first COVID-19 case on March 23. Since then, the number of coronavirus confirmed cases keeps rising to more than 330 as of late June. In April, a few private media houses in Myanmar announced mass termination, including reporters, to sustain their media business by means of operational cost-cutting. Many media outlets now focus more on online production while only very few continue their print-copies. Over hundred journalists from different newsrooms were in the lists of recent termination, according to the recent news reports and online discussion of Myanmar Women Journalists Society (MWJS) hosted on 20th June.
“From our observation, there are more women journalists than men among the dismissed employees,” said Khin Myat Myat Wai, a MWJS’s finance officer.
Khin explains, “I have over six years in the reporting experience. I was dismissed from my reporter position from my media house right after the country was hit by COVID-19. Now, I have to do something for my survival, and decide to sell food online. By profession, journalist is what I passionate about. But, I am afraid of not able to return to my reporting career after COVID-19.” Her pressing concern is, after the pandemic, media houses may not have enough capacity or determination to accept all journalists who went through the dismissal in the past 3 months.During the MWJS’s online discussion, 20 women journalists from print, broadcast, online media and freelancers, shared their challenges. Among them, there are six reporters from Madalay and Nothern Shan State. The discussions highlight that journalists are forced to shoulder their survival first, before finding solutions on how to keep up their reporting under the COVID-19 lockdown.
Htet Htet, a founder and reporter of the Thangangyun Post , also shares that unavoidable responsibilities such as day-to-day survival for the whole family wait for many journalists, including herself. She says, “Before COVID-19, I have no responsibilities for my parents as they have their own income by selling food. During COVID-19 lockdown, their business, like many others, was closed down too. So, the daily survival of everyone in my family falls on my shoulder, on top of my own reporting challenges.”
During the lockdown, there are other reporting related challenges such as ‘quality recording’ for broadcast-reporters, especially for freelancers. As there is no private space in majority of reporters’ houses, recording without surrounding noises has become a practical challenge. Besides, collecting enough visual data to support their news clips, has been much tougher. Not being able to craft a quality audio/visual clip(s), some reporters are not able to keep up with their regular reporting process, that leads to little or no income from their passionate career. So far, MWJS has been offering their office space for its members to utilize for their reporting work.
In terms of safety measure, media houses have not enough or are lack of providing safety-gears such as preventive masks, hand sanitizers and health insurance while covering daily news during the pandemic. Depending on assignments and potential exposure, journalists struggle with an additional stress of not to be a virus carrier. After the discussion, MWJS will compile all these findings to share with Myanmar Press Council in hope of finding solutions and support from any possible directions.
To grasp the experience and challenges of field reporters, Fojo Media Institute reaches out to Myat Moe Thu, a freelance journalist based in Northern Shan State of Myanmar, and Kyaw Swar Tun, a TV reporter of 7day TV.
Currently, Myat Moe Thu also serves as one of eleven executive committee members of Myanmar Women Journalists Society (MWJS) since October 2019, and she represents for Lashio Township in Shan State with ongoing armed-conflict for decades. As of June 2020, Myat had been covering news from conflict areas for more than three years, and her reports have been published in various media outlets based in Yangon and Mandalay.
Speaking from her experience, Myat expresses that it is already life-threatening enough for a journalist and a woman, to do reporting and be safe in the conflict areas. She emphasizes that it has always been a distress for herself and other journalists to go out for reporting without having any safety back-up, especially now in time of pandemic. Regarding the pandemic, she observes that many media houses have no in-house safety guidelines or translated version from the international resources, insurance policies and/or safety gears to share with field reporters on time.
Fojo: What is/are your challenge(s) reporting from the conflict area during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Myat: Being a woman journalist who travels within conflict areas and makes regular reporting on conflict-news, I definitely need protection from the media house(s) that I work for. It means a guarantee for a journalist. Regardless of freelance or full-time journalist, it is a very crucial component for media houses to take accountability for their journalists. In addition to the protection from the media houses, we also need a wider protection by law and local authorities. It has been long enough that journalists have been targeted from all fronts and different stakeholders that limit our work. Now, the coronavirus pandemic is an additional threat that need extensive protection plans and protocols.
Fojo: Do you get any trainings or tips on the pandemic reporting?
Myat: Honestly, I don’t understand well about the pandemic reporting, as there is no training provided from my media house. So, I do self-learning about the virus information from the local and international news sources, such as how to stay safe during this period, and how to cover news stories. For my own protection, I usually rely on civil society groups those work for the local’s social welfares in my area. If I can’t afford to buy masks and hand sanitizers, I request from them before I go out to cover news. As you know, the media house is not taking accountability for freelancer like me, if something bad happens. Right now, I am more afraid of weapons than the virus.
Fojo: How do you prepare yourself not to get infection while reporting?
Myat: I have to make a special news coverage on the returning migrant workers from the neighboring countries such as Thailand and China. At least, my editors personally remind me to protect myself when going out to meet someone for news. I make sure to wear the mask and wash my hands very often for my safety. Sometimes, interviewees dislike the reporter wearing the mask while the interview is happening. That shows lack of awareness about the virus among the people I meet. Besides, the local in my area cannot afford to buy masks and sanitizers. Of course, what I can do from my side is taking care of myself to have a good immune system not to contract virus easily.For this same topic, Kyaw Swar Tun, a field reporter at 7day TV and an alumnus of Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI) Diploma Course (2018) shares his thoughts as below. He worked at Myanmar press photo agency as a photographer before joining at 7day TV.
Fojo: What is your challenge as a reporter during this pandemic?
Kyaw: It is my mind. Being a reporter, I have to go everywhere I am assigned to cover. I feel a lot of anxiety for my family in case of infection in me. As you know, there is no extra space in my house to stay in a separate room for myself after I come home from my daily reporting. My family does not want to allow me to go out for news because they are also afraid of me being infected if I come across anyone tested positive with coronavirus.
Fojo: Do you have any protections from your media house?
Kyaw: They provide only masks and hand-gels.
Fojo: How do you get tips and understanding about COVID-19 and its related news reporting?
Kyaw: Recently I attend the online course–“Journalism in the Time of COVID-19 Online Training”, conducted by Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI). I learn “Dos and Don’ts” for a reporter who covers the COVID-19 news. I learn not only about news and information gathering, but also safety tips before I go out for interviews. For instance, wearing mask, cleansing our hands regularly with alcoholic hand-gel, and social distancing. Also, to clean our equipment after every interview. And, to avoid social gathering for our personal safety. I realized not to eat street food when we go out for reporting. The training is really informative and timely to me.
Fojo: How do you prepare and manage for the COVID-19 related news?
Kyaw: From the government side, I follow the concerned government’s official social media platforms to get the information as soon as they released. I followed their posted news and announcement. For others, the planning depends on case by case.