Feeding the (Information) Hungry
THE 90-YEAR-OLD ART Deco Shwe Hinthar cinema in Bago town appears faded and worn. But for three days, inside its hulking brown walls were brief echoes of a former heyday, as hundreds packed the building for its first-ever human rights film festival.
"lt was an eye opener," said festival organizer Mon Mon Myat, who toured the festival in the fall of 2013 to fourteen venues around the country. "People are still not getting enough information. There is a real hunger for more, especially in rural areas."
After five decades of censorship, Burma’s pent-up appetite for knowledge is challenging the energies of those like Mon who are trying to fill it.
Mon, an early graduate of Internews' ten month J School program, is currently producing a documentary film on political opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. At the same time, she's contributing feature stories on Burmese social issues to Thailand's Bangkok Post, promoting a book of short stories by Burmese women authors, penning fiction, planning a second film festival to run in 2014, and chairing an association of Southeast Asian journalists.
Quite the list, even by Burma's workaholic standards, but she maintains that "this is a time to try."
Life at the J School
A decade ago, Mon was a struggling young mother living in Thailand. She had finished her business degree but was unsure in which direction she should take her career. A friend encouraged her to apply for one of sixteen slots for the first intake of students at the lnternews J School.
Moving to school upon her acceptance proved to be the change she needed -and a shock. The school was housed in a secluded Chiang Mai compound, and had to operate covertly while simultaneously exposing students from one of the world's most closed societies to ideas and cultures entirely unfamiliar. ln the initial weeks of the program, Mon felt confined in the compound upon which students had bestowed the nickname "the Jail School."
The student group was a microcosm of Burmese society. Several hailed from Rangoon, while others from ethnic groups such as the Karen had lived in remote border areas and refugee camps. They spoke different languages; few were used to mixing closely with those from other ethnic groups; the oldest, in his late thirties, was more than double the age of the youngest.
What they did have in common was little to no experience in independent journalism.
Having grown up under extreme censorship, students were used to state mouthpieces and the organs of opposition political groups. Independent reporting had not existed in Burma for decades, and its value was not always apparent, even to the program's participants.
A key challenge for Internews trainers, then, was to clearly delineate between propaganda and professional journalism.
For Mon, training led not to a sudden epiphany, but rather a series of gradual realizations over time. First and foremost, she discovered a sense of mission at the J School.
"It changed my life," she said. "l realized that journalism was a way of truth telling. It was a way to lead a meaningful life. You could do something for society."
Soon after, though, she grasped the difficulties this career path would entail. In particular, she found the concept of media ethics challenging but fascinating. It was easy to feel like an underdog, given the repression in Burma at the time. The obstacles, though, did not excuse poor journalism; rather, they necessitated a critical understanding of and respect for the responsibilities that come with being a reporter.
J School Lessons in Practice
These ethical considerations in particular hit home after Mon's first big reporting project in 2005. Her feature on the little-known but devastating human toll of drugs and human trafficking in the remote border town of Ruili in China, opposite Burma's northern Shan State, garnered a great deal of attention in Burmese media circles.
Soon after Mon filed the report, the police launched a major crackdown on drug usage in the area. It was not clear if Mon's piece sparked this crackdown, but Mon was concerned for those she had interviewed.
When she tried to track down two young girls whose plight as victims, and heroin addicts, her report had exposed, she was unable to find any information. To this day, she still makes efforts to find out what became of them.
"Today, l always tell this story to young journalists," she said. "The point l want to get across is that you must always think about the people you're reporting about."
Of course, stories often take on a life of their own, and reporters cannot control many outcomes of their work. Nevertheless, she believes that those who possess a strong ethical sense ultimately produce stronger journalism.
Her emphasis on ethics and social responsibility only intensified after she returned to Burma to work for outlets that included Agence France Presse. At an lnternews-supported three-day emergency workshop for reporters covering cataclysmic events in the Irrawaddy Delta following 2oo8's Cyclone Nargis, Mon and other senior J School alumni shared practical tips on how to travel within the devastated region of muddy waterways while avoiding the attention of the authorities attempting to suppress news even as victims were desperate for information.
At the training, journalists discussed ways of telling the story most effectively. One strategy to beat the censors' red pen, for example, was to bury controversial facts far down in a report.
Mon led discussions on the moral dilemmas coverage of the cyclone would entail. She cautioned reporters to be mindful of their own psychological vulnerability and encouraged them to consider in advance how to avoid further damaging already traumatized survivors.
lt was a small workshop, but one packed with big ideas. These lessons on the roles and responsibilities of media still resonate today, which is exactly why Mon and many others working in Burma's resurgent media, film, and art scenes aren't likely to be slowing down any time soon.
Banner photo: Newspaper delivery bicycle in Myanmar (credit: Kim Nguyen van Zoen/Internews)