YANGON – Access to information has become far more challenging under the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government, Myanmar women journalists told their Asian colleagues at the Women in News Southeast Asia summit in Yangon last Thursday. The discussion focused on ways of reshaping the media landscape.
Myanmar women journalists shared their experiences of reporting on politics under the NLD, discussed coverage of women’s issues, and offered safety tips and advice on responding to harassment.
“Being a political journalist in this country is challenging, as we live in very sensitive and confrontational times,” said Ma Ei Ei Toe Lwin, a political reporter and chief of staff of the bilingual newspaper Myanmar Times. In Myanmar, women make up just 23% of political reporters, according to a study, Gender in Myanmar News, published in November 2017 by the Myanmar Women Journalist Society (MWJS) and Fojo Media Institute.
As a speaker at the panel, she highlighted the overall challenges that media practitioners face under the civilian government, noting that news media do not yet have full rights to information or to freely conduct investigative reporting.
Over the past two years, only a handful of NLD lawmakers have been willing to speak freely to the media. Initially, the party restricted parliamentarians’ ability to talk to journalists.
Myanmar media face “invisible lines” that pose barriers to press freedom as a whole, but little has been said about harassment of women journalists, either by their sources or in the newsroom, and other safety issues. Women journalists tend to simply bear these burdens and are unlikely to speak out against harassment or teasing (for being young women reporters), due to both cultural norms and lack of confidence.
Myanmar women are used to facing structural barriers, and the majority of women journalists tend not to raise their voices to seek greater roles at the editorial and management levels. Women journalists tend to leave the industry after they marry or have a child.
But the landscape is slowly changing.
“I would urge my fellow women, including journalists, to push ourselves to sit at the table, in order to express our perspectives and show our ability, because we can do better,” said Seng Mai, the chief editor of the Myitkyina News journal in Kachin State. She shared her own experiences of being hesitant to make decisions on some issues, while allowing her seniors to lead on decision-making.
“I used to think that my CEO’s decision on a particular issue would be better than mine, due to the fact that the male senior, being the elder, was regarded as the appropriate decision-maker,” she said. “It is an obstacle for our own development, so we have to change ourselves.”
The journalists also acknowledged the importance of male support and family understanding to the empowerment of women journalists. They urged male journalists to be supportive and champion a change in the mindset in order to have gender equality in the newsroom.
The second annual summit organized by the World Association of Newspaper and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) with support of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs covered key challenges and opportunities to increase the leadership roles of women and their voices in the news media industry, and the safety of women journalists in the industry.
Joined by a few dozen participants from Myanmar, Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and India, the themes discussed ranged from press freedom in Myanmar, the social media influence in the region, fake news and attacks on journalists on social media, to cultural norms and challenges facing women in leadership roles. The participants of the Women In News summit also highlighted a lack of safety policies within media companies, which have an impact on the safety and harassment of their female colleagues.
Renowned journalists like Rappler founder Maria Ressa from the Philippines, Stella Paul from India and Tran Le Thuy from Vietnam shared their experiences in digital journalism, tackling attacks on women journalists, pushing boundaries in investigative reporting and overcoming challenges to take a decision making role in the industry. At the roundtable discussion, recommendations regarding enhancing the safety of women journalists and increasing women’s leadership were laid out for participants to share with the leaders of their countries.