‘Lives are not going to get better without real access to information’

Reporter Lawi Weng was dismayed. Far in the north of his country, he had heard whispered, tens of thousands of minority Shan people were starving in camps where they had been herded when their homes were destroyed by fighting. Some had disappeared in mysterious circumstances. But at the time – in early 2017 – their stories were untold in the national media.

Weng knows something about refugees. He has been one himself. And if people were starving, he wanted to tell the world. His editors at Irawaddy, the online newspaper where he is a reporter, were sympathetic, but Weng knew Irrawaddy had limited resources and likely couldn’t support a reporting trip.

Weng went another way. With a reporting travel grant from Internews, Weng visited camps where mothers were rationing milk and families were down to their last stores of grains. The result of his trip was a three-part series on the camps in the village of Namtu – and the beginning of actions by the government to address the problems of neglect and corruption which have long plagued the camps.

“It is so important to report the stories of these ethnic conflicts from the perspective of the people who are caught up in them,” Weng said of his work, rare in a Burmese media environment that has typically rewarded reporters for covering national politics, not news from the hinterlands. “I wanted to help these people, and I also wanted to let the Burmese people and the international community know. Someone has to know or the fighting will never stop.”

Front page of Irrawaddy newspaper with the headline,

In this country slowly emerging from a half century of military rule, still teeming with ethnic conflict, economic woes, and restrictions on freedom of speech, courageous young reporters like Weng have been bravely making a difference. Weng, the son of a farmer from the Mon ethnic group who fled to Thailand as a teenager, was taken in by Mon exile groups there and returned to his country in 2013.

“The country has been so poor, and so poorly governed, and the people deserve better lives, but their lives are not going to get better without real access to information,” said Michael Pan, Myanmar Country Director for Internews.  

“Information is very important. We have a dark side here, a very dark side that has been underscored by the lack of understanding among peoples, among cultures, among ways of life. With understanding, with asking questions, with going out to report the real stories, you can solve problems. We have been sort of like a police state that is slowly transitioning and becoming a better society.”

Starting last summer, Weng himself faced severe penalties for his reporting. He and two other reporters were arrested and detained by the military in northern Shan State after reporting on a drug-burning ceremony in an area controlled by Ta’ang ethnic armed organization. They were ultimately charged with unlawful association, which Weng knew was unfair. “We were journalists, and we have to communicate with everyone as journalists.” Weng and his colleagues were released, with charges dropped, in September.

Journalists like Weng and his colleagues are forced to navigate shifting freedoms in Myanmar.  Since 2012, when reformist governments began to lift restrictions on the press for the first time in a generation, more than half the country’s 2,000 or so independent journalists – and many of its leading reporters – have been trained by Internews in the elements, basic and sophisticated, of reporting. For a decade before, Internews helped fledgling Burmese journalists from offices it maintained across the border in Thailand, offering trainings in neighboring countries for reporters and would-be-journalists from Myanmar. Internews’ work is grounded in the belief that information is a root solution to development challenges, particularly in democratic reform and peace processes.

“Internews really played a very significant role in the emergence of independent media in Burma,” Pan said. “When it launched there was no press freedom at all, no independent journalists. It was a catalyst, and now we are seeing the fruit of our work in the reporting of reporters like Lawi Weng and others, writing stories that can have an impact on political discussions, that can shed light on the darkness, like the conditions within these camps.”

In Yangon, Internews has for the past six years trained journalists in a mock newsroom environment it calls Newslab. For several months, reporters work out of a simulated newsroom, conceiving, reporting, writing, and editing stories, all utilizing modern newspaper technology and cloud storage. Internews runs news conferences and holds off-the-record conversations with politicians, representatives of think tanks and nonprofits working on electoral issues. There is face-to-face coaching and mentoring.  News outlets send staff to the training, and often publish the stories they produce.

“From early on here, we invested our efforts in mid-level journalists, in creating a cadre of reporters who are true professionals,” Pan said. “Now we are starting to see these professionals whom we have trained really populate the newsrooms.”

Newsrooms like that of Irawaddy, an online paper which had been published in exile for years but which is gaining respect and making a mark in Myanmar’s increasingly competitive and sophisticated media market, where nearly two dozen daily newspapers and 200 periodicals play off each other.

Or like the journalist based in Mandalay who received a grant from Internews to cover a measles outbreak in northwest Burma. Trainers from Internews worked with him to help him develop the story, and before long, the reporter was writing about an enterprising physician who was leading a public health initiative to combat infectious diseases.

The doctor won a humanitarian award from the local government and the reporter was honored with an award from a Yangon journalism organization for best feature on public health.

“The story was a perfect example of how journalism is supporting the democratic transition in the country,” Pan said. “It humanized the situation, it discussed larger issues like the public health budget. It touched people’s lives and it got the people working on the front lines of this issue deserved recognition.”

For Weng, 39, the impact of the support from Internews went far beyond one-time funding. It convinced his editors to let him pursue a beat focused on ethnic conflicts. That made him one of the few reporters in the country writing from that perspective. As a member of a minority group himself, Weng says he feels driven to tell such stories. He didn’t learn to speak Burmese along with the native Mon language until he was an adult, and long after he learned and began writing in English in Thailand.

“Most of the media, they are Burmese, they are not ethnic people and they don’t have a lot of experience around ethnic areas. They have never been there, they don’t know what’s going on and they may think, this is not important,” Weng said.

Today, Weng remains committed to reporting, but acknowledges the challenges he and others face. Asked if his arrest and detainment would change his reporting, Weng said, “I do not feel their action changed my journalism. But, my office does not want me to travel anymore as they feel I’m on a ‘blacklist.’ For myself, I will always try my best to do my report. But I am worried about no one will dare to do investigative reporting [anymore].

“Because of the Internews program, reporters like me and other ethnic reporters, we went to these communities and understand the situations. A good reporter has to travel a lot, and write what they have seen from their traveling.”

“That grant from Internews means that now I know the area, I know the ground. The next time I can report about refugees or fighting I can use that knowledge. And I will.”

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Brian Hanley is Internews Regional Director for Asia Programs. Internews’ NewsLab and travel grants for reporters have been supported by USAID.