Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘We Wanted to Challenge the Things that Other Women Couldn’t Do’

By The Irrawaddy 13 August 2016

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the role of women reporters and the challenges facing them in Burma’s new media landscape brought about by the democratization process. Daw Eaint Khine Oo of VOA [Voice of America] Burmese Edition and Daw Swe Mar Thein Lwin of Eleven Media will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

We are seeing more women journalists in the newly revitalized media industry, thanks to democratization.  Looking back, the industry grew in the post-war and pre-independence periods, paving the way for inspiring women journalists like Dagon Khin Khin Lay, Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay and Ludu Daw Ahmar. Then, the press almost collapsed under the military regime. Today, in the post-military regime or democratization period, the press has revived and we see many women journalists, like you two. Ma Eaint Khine Oo, what role do Burmese women journalists currently play in the media industry compared to their foreign counterparts?

Eaint Khine Oo: First of all, I would like to go back to when I first joined the press. I started my journalism career after September 2007. At that time, it was quite rare for women to choose a career in journalism but there were a certain number of women journalists. When I told my family that I wanted to be a journalist, they didn’t know what that was. Because I had been fond of reading since I was young, they let me pursue it—thinking it was a job that involved literature.

So, I became a reporter. We faced the same difficulties as our male colleagues—it was difficult to find sources or chase political stories. We could only report business news. Many [women] journalists joined the press after September 2007 and the number gradually increased over the years. Most of them worked hard. Once we became journalists, we wanted to challenge the things that other women couldn’t do—like going home late at night or traveling far away to report—and we have done that.

Compared to our foreign counterparts, in terms of long-distance travel, we are still left behind. Some editors do not want to send women journalists away, and they use their sex and safety concerns as excuses. It is partly because publishers do not provide proper funding. For example, when there are ethnic summits outside Rangoon, women journalists want to go. But we are not permitted to go, on the basis that it is not appropriate for women to go into regions controlled by armed groups. We are behind in that regard. I want management to choose reporters based on their knowledge of the region and the issues, not because of their sex. They should think about how they can provide security for the reporters.

YN: I agree with you. But recently Burma’s press has taken great pride in female journalist Esther Htusan winning a joint Pulitzer Prize. It is difficult for male journalists to win that prize, and her victory brings great pride to Burmese women journalists and shows that they are not falling behind. Most of the leaders in Burma’s media industry are men, and there are times when women are not favored or even provided equal opportunity. Ma Swe Mar, you recently covered the Mai Ja Yang Ethnic Summit in Kachin State. What difficulties did you face and was management worried about your safety when sending you there?

Swe Mar Thein Lwin: You said that the media industry is mainly led by men and therefore women are given less opportunity. But opportunities do not need to be given. Everyone should have them, regardless of their sex. We do not want to be favored by male editors because we are women. It should be natural. If a male reporter can report, so can we. Why not? We are the same. But as journalists, we need to be mindful of our personal safety.

Regarding my Mai Ja Yang trip, the town is in Kachin State and is controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). It was a long distance to travel. It was a 24-hour drive from Rangoon to Myitkyina, and then another day from Myitkyina to Mai Ja Yang. Management may think that it is risky to send a woman journalist on travel that includes overnight stays. There has been a custom in our news agency that male journalists are usually dispatched for such trips. Women journalists have covered press conferences about ceasefires and the peace process in Rangoon. I told management that rather than cover these events from Rangoon, we wanted to go and see what was happening in northern Shan, Kachin and Karen states. We need to know what is happening on the ground and find out if stakeholders are doing what they are preaching. I always demanded to attend the events in ethnic regions. The management chose male journalists and male cameramen for the Mai Ja Yang trip. So, I convinced management that I could do the reporting and I would take responsibility for myself. I explained why a reporter like me needed to go there. They approved within minutes. It was the first time that our media outlet [Eleven Media] sent a woman journalist on a long-distance assignment.

YN: Usually these trips are arduous and male editors take that into consideration when sending reporters to conflict or war zones. Women are traditionally regarded as the weaker sex in our society and there is concern that they may get sick or face other dangers while away. We generally prefer male journalists for such tiring trips. Now, women journalists are keen to go to conflict areas. We have no doubt about their capacity, but they are physically weaker than men. Ma Eaint Khine Oo, you have worked as an editor. What advice do you have for women journalists who travel to conflict areas?

EKO: I would like to point out three things. First, Esther Htusan went abroad for her investigative story about enslaved fishery workers. I do not know her editors. But her editors did not consider her sex; they just considered her ability and her safety. And her efforts were honored, which brings us great pride.

Likewise, we have a lot of investigative journalism to do regarding labor issues in our country. As the government becomes more transparent, we need to do more investigative journalism. When I was still a reporter, I went to Karen State’s Hpa-an to cover an election. I had lived there before. At that time, clashes were going on in Myawaddy but I went there because I was familiar with the region. I went around to the polling stations by motorbike. I could do it because I knew the region. It had nothing to do with my sex. At the same time, I maintained contact with my editor for my safety.

After I became an editor, I had both male and female reporters working under me. I sent a female reporter to cover [sectarian conflicts in] Meiktila. In another case when we heard about sectarian conflict in a township in Pegu Division, it was already 6 p.m. I didn’t send the male reporter to Pegu. It was not because of his sex, but because of safety concerns. We could not afford to arrange a car for him and he had to take the bus. The place was under curfew and he had to sleep wherever he arrived, which was not safe for him. I would have the same considerations for women journalists under similar circumstances. What is important is the safety of reporters. My view is that we should consider safety, but not base it on gender.

YN: Thank you for your contributions. Last week, over 100 women journalists gathered and shared their experiences. It is important that we respect the dignity and safety of women journalists when reviving the media landscape of Burma. Thanks for watching!