Navigating the Post-Coup Media World: The Creative and Precarious Labor of Myanmar’s New Generation of Media Workers

Lisa Brooten & Jane Madlyn McElhone | ယခုဆောင်းပါးကို မြန်မာဘာသာဖြင့် ဖတ်ရှုရန် ဤနေရာတွင် နှိပ်ပါ

Cite as:
Brooten, L., & McElhone, J. M. (2023). Navigating the Post-Coup Media World: The Creative and Precarious Labor of Myanmar’s New Generation of Media Workers. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship, 2. https://ijbs.online/?page_id=3978

Abstract

This article focuses on the experiences and actions of the young Myanmar media workers who participated in the keynote panel at the Myanmar Media Update conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand in March 2022, in response to the devastating coup d’état in their country. Their experiences demonstrate how Myanmar’s professional independent media workers perform a unique type of professional precarious creative labor that combines both professional and revolutionary responses with varying degrees of precarity. Their experiences also demonstrate the importance of recognizing media workers’ close proximity to the consequences of violence and the emotional responses this provokes, rather than focusing through the lens of distance often used to assess journalism’s “objectivity” in contexts of violence.

Introduction

In the wake of Myanmar’s1 February 2021 military coup d’état a young media owner lost his house and car but continues to do journalism. Another writes news in his living room and then goes to the kitchen to cook food that he sells to support his media business. A third sold his wedding ring to keep his outlet afloat and then witnessed the death of his colleague after the borderland village in which they had sought refuge was attacked by military junta forces. These are just some of the poignant stories shared by the group of younger generation media leaders that came together at the Myanmar Media Update conference in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in March 2022.

Their experiences detail how, while working to maintain their professional codes of conduct and adapt them to the drastically altered context, Myanmar media workers have also had to dodge bullets, flee into hiding, live out of suitcases and backpacks, respond to death, destruction, and loss, and set up new lives and new outlets. Their responses to the coup, and to the enormous and sudden changes it imposed on everyone in the country, can be understood as a form of creativity in response to duress, a strategic “process of making do under structural constraints” that is “more deeply and more intimately entangled with the human body” than most forms of creativity in the workplace.2

While not involved in direct resistance against the junta, these media workers’ responses nevertheless indicate their desire to build a different world than the one created under decades of direct military rule, especially given the freedoms they enjoyed during the decade-long opening (2011-2021). They exemplify the “expressions of human affects and aspirations” characteristic of activists performing what Kraidy calls revolutionary creative labor.3 He distinguishes this from industrial creative labor using a conceptualization of creativity that moves away from a purely aesthetic understanding of the term, instead seeing all human action as inherently creative, whether for good or ill.4

In this article we explore the ways in which Myanmar’s professional independent media workers, including those who participated in the keynote panel for the Myanmar Media Update conference, perform a unique type of creative labor,5 combining both professional and revolutionary responses with varying degrees of precarity. We refer to this as professional precarious creative labor, to address a gap in existing research, which does not adequately theorize the labor of professional media workers under duress and in exile. In Myanmar’s case, we will demonstrate how the approach to journalism and media in the current post-coup context differs significantly from the attitude and experiences of the 1988 generation students who fled into exile decades ago. Several ‘88 activists established and developed over decades three of the larger and better-known independent media news outlets still bringing the world up-to-date Myanmar news today.6 This article focuses on the immediate post-coup experiences and actions of the young Myanmar media workers on our keynote panel and discusses what they reveal about precarious creative labor in the face of unexpected crisis.

Discussions about the media’s role in responding to the massive resistance and civil disobedience movements, and more recently, armed resistance groups, that comprise Myanmar’s Spring Revolution, tend to focus on the older generation of media workers. We do not often hear from the field’s younger generation. This latter generation entered media work during Myanmar’s period of opening, without experiencing the repressive working conditions and/or exile their media elders suffered during nearly half a century of direct military rule. This reality has informed younger media workers’ experiences in the wake of the most recent coup. The keynote panel also pushed us to reflect on how the experiences of these younger generation media workers compare to the experiences of those often discussed in research on journalism in conflict-affected areas. In the case of both Myanmar’s older and younger generations of media workers, Al-Ghazzi’s notion of affective proximity offers insight from the embodied perspective of media workers.7 This concept recognizes their close proximity to the consequences of violence and the emotional responses this provokes, as opposed to examining their experiences through the lens of distance often used to assess journalism’s “objectivity” in contexts of violence. This lens of distance is dominant in transnational news reporting and in the literature on global journalism, both largely framed through the perspectives of foreign journalists parachuting into what is usually for them a faraway, unfamiliar context.8

The five media workers on the keynote panel talked about how and why they ended up working in Myanmar media, the impact of the coup on their work and their careers, the role they play as media workers in rebuilding their country, and the kind of media sector they dream of building in a reimagined Myanmar. As organizers and moderators of this panel, we were privileged witnesses to their stories, which they have given us permission to write about, and in some cases, to quote.9 Because they needed to respond to the coup and its challenges, they have been forced to reconsider their personal survival strategies and their professional work, and in the process have grown as leaders and thinkers, bringing their skills to the collective struggle to conceptualize, work towards, and demand change. Their responses reveal a strong belief in and commitment to professional journalism and free expression in the face of the complete political, economic and social disruption of their lives as young professionals forced to flee, and a dedication to continuing their work motivated by the desires to build something better and to transcend their country’s history of media repression.

Myanmar’s Tumultuous Media History

Myanmar’s current post-coup media sector can be best understood against the backdrop of the country’s tumultuous media history—starting from British rule and independence in 1948 to close to half a century of military rule, followed by a much-lauded decade-long ‘political opening’ that abruptly ended on 1 February 2021. British colonists established Burma’s earliest media outlet in 1842, and then its first censorship law in 1857.10 A strong advocate for press freedom, Burma’s King Mindon introduced the country’s first indigenous press freedom law in 1873.11 During the 1920s and 1930s the nationalist independence movement radicalized Burmese media,12 and in 1947 Burma’s first constitution stipulated the right to freely express opinions. The subsequent brief, heady period of democracy and free expression that followed the country’s independence in 1948 fostered Burma’s reputation for having one of the most active media sectors in Asia, with more than 30 daily newspapers in operation.13 Ethnic language journals also emerged over the same period in borderland areas controlled by ethnic armed organizations (EAOs).14 Yet, by the 1950s, free expression and free media were under threat, and in 1962 General Ne Win seized power in a coup d’état—the start of nearly 50 years of military rule.

In the wake of that coup, the new regime revoked existing press laws, imposed strict media censorship via the Printers and Publishers Registration Law, created two state newspapers, nationalized private publications, banned private newspapers, and arrested editors and journalists.15 Surviving publications were largely considered mouthpieces of Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party.16 In 1974 a new constitution limited “free expression” to the “Burmese Way to Socialism” and a blacklist banned many writers from publishing.17 The broadcast sector remained state-run.

Then, in 1988, in the wake of nationwide protests spearheaded by students, freedoms increased, albeit briefly, in what became known as the Democracy Spring. Dozens of private publications that critically reported news quickly emerged.18 Yet, after another coup d’état brought the infamous State Law and Order Restoration Council to power later in the year, the new regime imposed martial law and strict censorship, banned protests and private newspapers, and arrested editors, journalists and writers.19 An estimated 3,000 people were killed and another 3,000 imprisoned. Approximately 10,000 people fled to ethnic-controlled areas along the borderlands or into exile;20 some set up Burma’s first generation of exile media outlets.

Despite the crippling media repression that characterized this period, Burmese people still found ways to access non-state news, including from international broadcasters such as the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia,21 videotapes of foreign broadcasts smuggled into the country,22 reports from small media outlets in ethnic-controlled areas, and publications and broadcasts by exile media outlets set up by students who fled into exile in 1988.23 Inside the country, private monthly publications emerged in the 1990s, using metaphor and irony in an effort to evade the censors; they were the forerunners of the private weekly publications that emerged in the early 2000s, and the newsweeklies in the mid-2000s.24

At the start of the much-heralded decade-long political opening (2011-2021) between the last regime and the current one—part of the preceding junta’s so-called “Seven-Step Roadmap to Democracy”—the media sector was active yet also highly restricted. An estimated 200 private weekly and monthly journals and magazines—most associated with high-ranking military personnel—covered news, sports and lifestyles, yet grappled with pre-publication censorship.25 The military-backed government, military and a few crony business partners controlled the broadcast sector. The telecommunications sector was stagnant, SIM cards were unaffordable, and access to the internet was limited to an estimated one percent of the population.26

 Many media actors and free expression activists embraced the media reform agenda set into motion in early 2012 by the military-backed quasi-civilian Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Pre-publication censorship was abolished27 and the telecommunications sector was liberalized,28 making SIM cards widely available and affordable. Access to internet and digital communications technologies soared, at least in the main urban centers. International news agencies opened offices inside the country. The majority of exiled media returned. Established media across the country expanded and new private independent media outlets launched in Burmese and ethnic languages. Old and new media development organizations and international donors increased support for the sector.29

Yet the political opening seems to have been an anomaly and was fragile and uncertain from the start. In 2014 the USDP began a rollback on media freedom and free expression. By 2015 Myanmar was included in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ list of the world’s ten most censored countries.30 When the National League for Democracy (NLD) assumed power in 2016 under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, there was hope of renewed reform; instead, the new government did not prioritize independent media development or free expression; it employed the country’s laws to silence journalists and critics, and it preserved state-owned media privileges and powerful joint ventures between the state and its business partners.

Arguably more than anything else, however, the Rohingya crisis of 2017 and the military, NLD and independent media responses tested the very foundation of the political opening, including media freedom, free expression, and journalistic ethics and professionalism.31 While violence against the Rohingya had been recurrent for decades, an August 2017 attack by a Rohingya splinter group against a government military outpost provoked an especially widespread, violent military crackdown that forced more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees to flee the country. The violence was condemned by the United Nations (UN), which cited serious human rights violations and recommended that top military figures, including later coup leader Min Aung Hlaing, be investigated for genocide against the Rohingya.32 The NLD government and its de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi were criticized at first for their silence, and then for their justifications for the attacks. In June 2019, the NLD also initiated the world’s longest internet shutdown in Rakhine and Chin states.33 The December 2017 arrest and September 2019 conviction of two Reuters journalists for reporting on a mass killing of Rohingya by the military was emblematic of the ruthlessness of the military and the failure of the government to protect freedom of the press and the safety of journalists.34 Independent media survived the tumult, despite these challenges and ethics concerns (often raised by Western donors), although with damaged reputations for some.35

Prior to the coup, then, Myanmar’s independent media landscape was well developed and robust, despite the many criticisms, ethical dilemmas and challenges it faced, including the impact of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet in the course of writing about the experiences shared by our panelists at the 2022 conference, we realized that the post-coup lives and experiences of the women on our panel and other Myanmar independent media workers are not adequately represented in the academic literature. While there are useful concepts from conflict journalism, media studies and social movement studies, for example, we could find no theory that provides an adequate, relevant framework for thinking about the creative, precarious labor of these media workers in the service of their profession and in the face of Myanmar’s revolution against military dictatorship.

Media’s Creative Professional Labor in the Face of a Revolution

In The Art of Moral Protest, James Jasper offers a start.36 He examines the creative mechanisms of protest, comparing activists and artists to center the notion of creativity as a vital component of revolutionary labor that provides alternatives to corporate and state entities. Given that we also understand the power of media not merely as channels through which others mediate their messages, but “media’s representational power [as] one of society’s main forces in its own right”, we focus here on the creative agency and labor of media workers.37 The media workers on our panel, while making decisions and acting individually and on behalf of their organizations and outlets, nevertheless clearly conceive of themselves as part of a larger collective action, contributing in various ways to “the emergence, reproduction, and transformation of social order”.38 Yet the creative labor of Myanmar’s newly exiled independent media differs from that of the media that emerged after 1988 (including in some cases, earlier versions of their own outlets): while in both periods this has been precarious work, independent media workers responding to the 2021 coup define and understand their work as avowedly professional.

Rather than working to tear down an existing social order through the actions of revolutionary creative labor, Myanmar’s 2021 Spring Revolution is a response to a brutal militarized attack against and subsequent collapse of this order. The Myanmar people have been forced to respond by defending against and working to take down the destructive military so they can build their country anew. In this way, the revolution embodies a defensive, exhausting yet productive new moment for the Myanmar social order “in the process of self-generation”.39 While Jasper argues that protest movements operate at the edges of a society and its understandings of itself,40 in post-coup Myanmar protest is at the center of this societal reassessment. Myanmar media workers’ creative, professional labor in response to this revolution is precarious, embodied work, carried out by people who are also members of the communities involved in the conflicts, vitally contributing to imagining new possibilities for Myanmar, the first step in building a new nation.

Yet this situation produces tensions between professionalism and activism. This is not the first time that Myanmar media have had to grapple with this tension between their commitment to struggling against the military dictatorship and their commitment to professional journalistic ethics. Foreign funders and trainers from more stable, democratic countries have also long struggled with this complex question. Some media donors and media development organizations, for example, have made the adherence to dominant conceptions of professional, ethical journalism a condition of their support for exile media, or at least an aspiration. Another set of donors focusing on democratization have not necessarily shared the same viewpoint or set the same conditions. This is a longstanding debate in the donor community. Academics have also raised questions or pointed to questions being raised in Myanmar about just who defines what is “ethical” or “professional” in the Myanmar context.41 Even during the Independent Media in Exile Conference held in Stockholm in October 2010, during the first period of exile for some Myanmar media, this tension fueled one of the main debates. Ronald Koven, at that time European representative for the World Press Freedom Committee, argued that this tension remains a largely false dichotomy because, “sending in factual reporting is a form of political activism”.42 By being professional, ethical and truthful, in other words, exiled journalists have their own distinct role to play in the fight against oppressive regimes. While we cannot ignore this tension, especially because it remains a concern for many Myanmar media workers, it is not our intention to rehash it from the familiar lens of “objective” distance. When we do touch on this dominant debate, our focus is instead on the creative nature of the embodied responses to the coup by Myanmar’s professional independent media, as exemplified by the young media workers on our panel.

Research focusing on “alternative media”, “alternative journalism”, and “radical media” is also helpful here, yet still tangentially related to our focus. Discussions of alternative media and alternative journalism largely focus on non-professional media outlets.43 Atton & Hamilton’s theorization of alternative journalism focuses on media ideally “produced outside mainstream media institutions and networks”, encompassing the media of “protest groups, dissidents, fringe political organizations, even fans and hobbyists’” and generally produced by untrained “amateurs” who for the most part “lack training or professional qualifications”.44 Downing defines radical media not in terms of any specific political ideology—they run the gamut—but rather as “media, generally small-scale and in many different forms, that express an alternative vision to hegemonic policies, priorities, and perspectives”.45 He notes that these media:

Generally serve two overriding purposes: (a) to express opposition vertically from subordinate quarters directly at the power structure and against its behavior; and (b) to build support, solidarity, and networking laterally against policies or even against the very survival of the power structure.46

These concepts are relevant for thinking about the wider sector of communicative forms emerging from the coup, such as “blogs and social networking sites; pamphlets and posters; fanzines and zines; graffiti and street theater; independent book publishing and even independent record production”.47 This includes those media that, reminiscent of 1988, self-define as the voice of the resistance, whether for the Spring Revolution, the National Unity Government (NUG), People’s Defense Forces, or others. Yet these bear little similarity to Myanmar independent media or our panelists, who are all part of established, professional media groups.

Shifting Conceptions of Information and Media

Independent media workers’ post-coup experiences are both different and similar to those of the 1988 generation. The two generations’ flight from the country to escape the dangers under the military presented different forms of precarity and opportunity in exile, yet they shared a commitment to unknown futures different than if they remained. When students, most from the country’s majority Bama ethnic group, fled after the 1988 uprising and subsequent crackdown, they met and joined forces with EAOs in the jungle borderlands. At that time, the students and EAOs both viewed media as tools for propaganda and as the mouthpieces or close allies of specific opposition political forces.48 The media they launched were the result of revolutionary creative labor, for the most part small-scale and created by people with no experience in journalism.49 One of the rationales for support from foreign funders in the post-1988 period was the development of independent media with journalists who would operate according to globally dominant and hegemonic journalistic standards of “objectivity”. While Myanmar’s professional independent media still largely aim to operate according to these standards, they have also recognized the need for adjustment in contexts very different from those in which these standards were established, and where many of the visiting trainers themselves became professionals.50 Commenting on the influx of professional journalism training opportunities after the 1988 uprising, budding ethnic media51 journalists, whose days were spent reporting on the violence in and around their own communities, questioned strict notions of journalistic “objectivity”,52 and emphasized the need for trainers who also came from areas of conflict.53

These standards, while valued, are similarly being challenged in the aftermath of the coup, as journalists remain simultaneously committed to professionalism and to the success of the Spring Revolution. Journalists of both eras, similar to the Syrian journalists in 2011 who insisted on calling their country’s protests a “revolution” despite the label of the “Arab Spring” used in the Western media, have remained committed to countering the military regime. For Syrian journalists, “the word ‘revolution’ was not simply a description of a literal overthrow of authority that was or is happening. Rather… it is invoked as a sign of commitment to a desired event projected onto the near future”.54

Myanmar’s professionally oriented independent media developed over decades after 1988, many with foreign media development support, establishing a good number of the senior independent media journalists of today, who then hired and trained the younger generation of media workers. This includes the larger Bama-run exile media and smaller ethnic media that operated in Myanmar’s borderlands, cross-border in India, Thailand and Bangladesh, and overseas, as well as the significant journalism industry that developed inside Burma under military rule. When the country opened up in 2011, the two media streams coalesced, competing for stories, staff, audience, advertising, investment and funding. While the 2021 coup took many by surprise, independent media with professional outlooks—albeit with varying degrees of professionalism—were already long established. While several outlets stopped their work after the coup, for the most part these media have proved nimble when it comes to survival, quickly adjusting to the new reality, once again often with international media development support. This is particularly true for the ethnic editors and journalists operating in the ethnic states, who have dealt with military repression for decades, and have developed many cross-border ties and in some cases, border-based offices.

In response to the coup, many of Myanmar’s professionally oriented independent media, like their Syrian counterparts, have felt “‘forced to report’ because if they do not tell the world what was happening, no one else would”.55 Reflecting on what Al-Ghazzi calls “affective proximity”, which “captures the feeling of being close to violence in one’s own country and community”, Syrian journalists reported that “they felt they were needed to simultaneously project authenticity and emotion onto news narratives as well as act as objective witnesses able to produce truthful accounts”.56 This reflects the need of journalists living in or through violent contexts to acknowledge the emotional aspects of their experiences as part of the reality they are reporting on.

Challenges and Contradictions of Living Through Violence

One of the most significant threats Myanmar independent media are facing is the contradiction inherent in a reliance on digital technologies that also render them vulnerable to digital security threats and surveillance.Syrian and Tibetan media in exile, also unable to safely physically access the country on which they report, despite being a vital source of independent information in and on their country, also grapple with this contradiction.57 All of these media face “network shutdowns, Internet filtering, social media censorship, confiscation of satellite dishes”, and other efforts to block the flow of information.58 Yet according to the Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF), in the wake of the coup Myanmar media outlets have seen astonishing audience growth on social media platforms—as high as 93 percent59—an immense benefit that is nevertheless undermined by the regime regularly cutting internet and phone lines, especially in areas of heavy fighting between the Myanmar military and opposition forces.60 One advantage in Myanmar, as in Syria, is that many of the media workers come from the same younger generation of digital natives who also make up a significant component of the media’s target online audience, including a diverse community of young digital experts who quickly went underground in the wake of the coup and offered support to the media.61

Although journalistic credibility is often linked to being on the ground and an eyewitness to events,62 after the coup this quickly became unsafe for Myanmar’s independent professional journalists. Like Tibetan exile media, many independent Myanmar media have had to rely on “circles of trust” that form their journalistic network of freelancers, non-professional citizen journalists (CJs) and social networks inside the country.63 Reliance on freelancers and CJs is not a new phenomenon in Myanmar. During the previous period of military rule, Myanmar media and journalists inside the country did what they could to assist the outlets in exile, as did freelancers and CJs, even before anyone used that term.

This time around, while still taking daunting risks to do their work, media outlet staff, freelancers and CJs working in Myanmar have a larger set of tools to rely on: better and more affordable technologies, more widely available and faster internet access, and more options for staying safe via the use of tools such as Signal and virtual private networks. Nevertheless, our panelists stressed that the situation is far more precarious for those working inside the country than it is for those operating in exile, and that without their labor many independent media would not be able to continue their work. By working in exile during the previous decades of military rule, Myanmar media went some way toward allaying their institutional precarity and enabling their operations to continue.64 Yet much like the last time, many staff, freelancers and CJs operating inside say they have often had very little financial or security support, in some cases even laboring for free and taking great risks in sharing information. As Kraidy notes, the impact of creativity in making do despite constraints operates “according to rules of exclusion and inclusion that serve criteria of social distinction”.65 As one working class Syrian noted about their 2011 revolution, “working class Syrians felt even more obliged to tell the Syria story because they were stuck there as compared to their more mobile middle-class compatriots”—those intellectuals and journalists who were able to leave the country.66 The precarity of those working inside Myanmar in the post-coup period is a topic of concern for many in the media field, including those on our panel.67

It is therefore important to note that all of our keynote panelists, in addition to being women, have relatively privileged backgrounds that enabled them to attain education and English-language skills that prepared them for professional careers. This also made it possible for them to take advantage of the sudden opportunities presented by the influx of international donor funding and other kinds of support, as well as the opening in the media sector in the decade prior to the coup.

Coming of Age in a Time of Opportunity

Myanmar’s decade of political opening was a time of change and opportunity. Panelist Tin Htet Paing changed careers in 2014, after spending five years working for an international logistics company in Yangon, and found that “2014 was such an interesting time to be in your 20’s. There were so many opportunities and so many possibilities. I decided to become a journalist no matter what”. Her peers cite similar stories of changing jobs and deciding to follow their passions, or as another panelist, media worker Grace Thu put it, “a career that impressed me”. Grace moved first into interpretation for journalists and media trainers and then into media work after leaving a retail job, which, she said, “was not my best choice”. Another of our panelists, Shoon Naing, returned to Myanmar just before the 2015 elections after pursuing a degree in engineering abroad. As the election neared, she also found work as an interpreter and fixer, and says this made her fall in love with journalism. Another panelist, Nang Hyeo Hom,68 returned home to Shan State in 2019 after ten years in Thailand, where she completed a university degree. She wanted to contribute to her community and was thrilled to discover that a local ethnic media outlet was searching for young people to work with it. Wah Wah Phaw69 also moved back to Myanmar after obtaining an advanced degree in a neighboring country. Inspired by her young journalist friends, she helped establish a small civil society organization working on digital issues, media literacy training and eventually fact-checking, and was the only one of our panelists who had done at least some media work prior to the political opening.

Responding to the Shock

Despite rumors of a possible coup circulating among media workers days and even weeks before 1 February, for most of these women a coup seemed inconceivable, and they did not believe it would actually happen. In Grace’s words, “We didn’t know they’d be that stupid”. But however ill-prepared and shocked, their work required them to think and react quickly and creatively to the constantly shifting and unpredictable environment and new dangers. Yet without prior experience or knowledge to fall back on, the younger generation did not really know how to do that.

When the coup happened, Myanmar editors and journalists suddenly had to deal with breaking news at all hours of the day and night, and, making matters worse, one of the coup regime’s first moves was to shut down the internet. When it was again possible to get online, they needed to institute immediate safety measures, such as moving from accustomed ways of communicating, like cellphones and Facebook messenger, onto safer platforms, like Signal. A few weeks into the coup, realizing that they had now become targets of the junta’s soldiers, journalists ditched their press IDs, hats and armbands, as well as their larger, professional equipment, shifting to unobtrusive equipment, primarily cellphones that had been wiped clean. As the security situation became increasingly dire, the focus shifted to the safety of their teams and figuring out how to support the journalists reporting on the ground. Many media workers felt the need to move from their homes to find temporary places to stay and work, which they then had to keep changing. Many fled the country entirely. Many news outlets closed their offices, at least temporarily, while they waited to see what would happen.

In the midst of all of these changes and their need to flee to safety, media workers also had to manage the emotional weight of the atrocities they were witnessing in their own communities. Shoon Naing continued her reporting because, “it’s a very important job to do right now, and so many changes were happening and so many atrocities, and also very resilient fighting back by the people”. She felt driven to document even the smallest developments. Much like their Syrian counterparts, Myanmar journalists have had “to deal, emotionally and logistically, with deaths of loved ones, as well as escape and exile”, experiences “often unrecognized as part of their journalistic labor”.70 Acknowledging this struggle is vital so we can move beyond the predominant research focus on Western foreign correspondents or one-off experiences of violence that journalists report on, to a greater understanding of the very different and difficult “experiences of communities that find themselves forced to live through violence”.71

Myanmar media workers also had to grapple with the sudden need to change organizational and personal plans. Before the coup, Wah Wah Phaw and her colleagues had been engaged in five-year planning, but on 1 February 2021 their plans were turned upside down. Recognizing that even fact-checking and media literacy programs could be used as weapons by the coup regime to create distrust of the media, they had to think hard about how to continue their work in ways that would not harm media colleagues who were already under immense pressure. As a result, Wah Wah Phaw’s organization made the difficult decision to stop working as a fact-checker, because as she put it, “this is the time when we need to work as a community rather than working as an organization building a brand”. They decided instead to work directly with their journalist colleagues, whose work they had previously been monitoring, and help them with the investigative reporting they were now conducting to counter military propaganda. And to further counter the impact of military propaganda, they also continued their media literacy work in local communities. The significant risks posed by the conflict required organizations like hers, that in times of peace function as watchdogs, to shift to cooperation with the media they used to monitor—an understandable shift, but one that in the long run has significant consequences for the media’s role as the Fourth Estate.

Reflective of the opportunities for young media workers in the decade of political opening, Grace Thu and Nang Hyeo Hom had been promoted to jobs with far greater responsibility just one month before the coup, and on the very first day of the coup, Shoon Naing had assumed a team leadership position. Pointing to the impact of the coup on her appointment as Media Development Investment Fund’s Myanmar Program Director one month prior, Grace says, “It changed everything. We had to make so many quick decisions to protect ourselves and to protect our partners. It was non-stop and very challenging”. Nang Hyeo Hom was also promoted one month prior to the coup, to deputy executive director of an ethnic media outlet, yet she had only recently returned to Myanmar. For this reason she had to adjust not only to being home in a country very different from the one she had left, but also to assuming a new management role. “I was the only manager inside Myanmar so I had to take charge”, she explained. “All of the staff were living in the office so I had to work quickly to find them safe houses, move our documents and equipment out of the office, and eventually find a way for them all to cross the border into a neighboring country.”

Many young generation journalists, while mourning the loss of their newsroom experiences, looked to their newsroom elders for advice about what to do. Although Tin Htet Paing was assistant editor at the investigative outlet Myanmar Now, she was also part of the younger generation. Reflecting on the rapid changes, she admitted:

I didn’t know how to absorb this information, you know, because I was born after 1988. So we weren’t trained to be in that situation. We only read about it in books. So I was really, really nervous. How do we cope with our life? What’s the first thing we should do? Do we run out and protest, or what do we do?

In the end, they all doubled down on their work to help address the difficult issues facing the country.

New Insights and Creative Responses to Conflict

Even prior to the coup and its aftermath, several of the young media workers on our panel had been critically reflecting on what they knew and understood about their own country. Shoon Naing describes herself as Yangon born and bred, a student at an elite school who knew virtually nothing about the entrenched problems in Myanmar until she returned home from abroad. She admits she was shocked by what she learned and observed while working in journalism and covering atrocities in the ethnic states, including the Rohingya crisis in Rakhine State.72 She recalled thinking: “This has been going on in my country? Why the hell did I not know that? I was ashamed”. Like Shoon Naing, Grace also grew up in Yangon and went to a respected school, and only had access to more critical views about her country when she went abroad. Then, when both women started working in media they were able to gain a greater understanding of their country’s stark complexities and the contradictions between what they had heard from the state-run media during their childhoods and the reality they now understood. “We all grew up during dark times”, said Grace. “We thought the government media were the only media. But they can’t fool us anymore.”

Tin Htet Paing’s experience, on the other hand, was quite different. She grew up in a town in the Ayeyarwady Delta, listening to her father and his friends discussing current affairs, and with access to his newspapers and books. This gave her a better understanding of her country and a penchant for thinking critically even before she started working in journalism. While acknowledging that many of her Burmese contemporaries have had to learn about the harsh realities of their country while on the job or overseas, Tin Htet Paing also points out that many foreigners working in or on Myanmar are also often inadequately informed. To understand the context and consequences of their work, whether that be their journalism on complex issues, such as ethnicity, or their funding and other support decisions if they work in the NGO sector, she says it is vital that they read news and analysis produced by independent Myanmar media and listen to Myanmar editors and journalists. This mirrors a growing call from Myanmar people for greater control over their own stories, and criticism of the dominant narratives of events provided by foreign parachute journalists, analysts and other “experts”.73

Our panelists’ insights into their country include the ways in which those from different backgrounds and ethnicities did not have the privilege of being fooled by government propaganda. Nang Hyeo Hom, who is Shan, grew up in a refugee camp on the Thailand-Burma border, and she was aware from an early age of the longstanding atrocities occurring in Myanmar’s ethnic states. She had a starkly different viewpoint and understanding than her colleagues from the cities about the reality of their shared country long before she worked in media. Observations such as hers are not often found in research addressing violence and journalism, which largely “focuses on the notion of trauma and exposure, rather than on having to live with and/or in violence”.74 The lack of attention to contexts in which media workers live “with and/or in violence” applies both to the perspectives of Western foreign correspondents reporting on faraway contexts such as Myanmar, as well as to many of the pre-coup perspectives of the few urban-based Bama journalists who reported on violence in Myanmar’s ethnic nationality communities.75

The coup highlighted a generational memory gap as well. On the first morning of the coup, Grace was awakened by her aunt, who told her that all the phone lines in the capital Nay Pyi Daw had been shut down. Wondering why her aunt was telling her this, Grace replied that they would probably be back up and working soon. Only then did her aunt whisper that there had been a coup. “Her generation lived under repression for a long time, so when that happened she didn’t dare to say aloud in our own home that there was a coup. That was a shock to me”, Grace told us. Unlike the many younger people who had never experienced a coup and found it hard to believe it would happen, at least some of those who had lived under previous coup regimes—and their memories of those—made them fear discussing it openly.

Despite the drastically changed circumstances after the coup, Myanmar’s independent media workers’ resilience and creative responses made it possible for information to continue flowing. Many lost their incomes and were forced almost overnight into newly precarious situations. The changes have also meant gut-wrenching costs for media workers, who have had to worry about the impact on family members either in exile with them or who remain in the country. “In some cases”, Grace explained, “families have had to publicly disown their children out of a concern for their safety and security”. Situations like this reflect the unrecognized emotional labor required of many local media workers whose homes are in areas targeted with violence, yet which also spurs them on to imagine a better future.76

Reimagining Myanmar Media and Journalism

Since the coup, Myanmar’s younger activists and media workers have made it clear that they do not want to return to the status quo under another NLD government term, at least as it was to be after the 2020 election and before the coup. While the initial post-coup protests focused on the reinstatement of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, this quickly changed—especially for younger people, who had become disillusioned with the party over the years prior to the coup,77 and who now call for a more just, inclusive, and democratic Myanmar. As a result, our panelists acknowledge that despite the devastating reality of the coup, it has also provided impetus and opportunity for reimagining a very different future Myanmar, including in the media sector.

The women on our panel long for a future media landscape that is more diverse and multicultural, more secure and better resourced. Some of their concerns are practical yet necessary steps to a better future. Nang Hyeo Hom emphasizes the need to invest in ethnic voices and media, and to increase support for ethnic language content, so that a more representative and diverse group of voices, stories and realities are heard and the many people who do not read or understand Burmese are not left out of the national conversation. Wah Wah Phaw calls for inclusive discussions about the kinds of future education and training the media—and future generations—will need. Pointing to the importance of a healthy political economy of the media industry, Grace wants to see a future media landscape where independent professional media are able to become financially sustainable.

All of the panelists also stress the invaluable and brave contributions of citizen journalists and other young people working in especially precarious conditions, who have become key to the media’s ongoing resilience. They call for support for CJs and young people new to the field through safety trainings and other fellowships. Wah Wah Phaw also points to the need for young, local digital natives to help fight the increase in online misinformation, disinformation and propaganda through fact-checking and human rights documentation. “You can really see the power of the younger generations leading the resistance”, she says. “When dreaming about the future of the media landscape, we need to think about how to support the younger generations and to ensure they are part of the discussion.”

This involves taking better pay and working conditions seriously, given the increasingly obvious need for trustworthy journalism. Although her previous non-media job paid very well, Tin Htet Paing says she used all of her savings during her first year as a journalist working for a national media outlet, and that her friends thought she was crazy to continue. Financial considerations, she argues, are one of the reasons many young people don’t pursue jobs in journalism. Shoon Naing observes that international media and organizations depend on national and local media for stories, insight and analysis, which is yet another reason why better working conditions that will attract good people are vital.

The panelists also argue that despite their commitment to advancing the revolution, credible journalism requires continued vigilance to protect media independence. Tin Htet Paing dreams of the day when no Myanmar media outlet is a mouthpiece of any individual, organization, or political party; “where journalists are not regarded as traitors for reporting on government wrongdoings”; where the public does not attack or threaten media; and where the government provides data freely. “Instead of the past toxic, divided atmosphere where journalists constantly attacked and criticized each other”, she says, “I want to see a future where journalists can practice their skills freely and openly and where they can benefit from sector-wide debate and learning”.

Perhaps most vitally, these women see the creative potential of this historic moment, arguing that media workers in Myanmar right now have fertile ground for learning their trade in the most difficult circumstances, including, sadly, the coup, ongoing fighting and the impact of genocide. While they warn aspiring media workers not to expect a fancy, easy or safe lifestyle, they also insist on the creative possibilities of commitment and care, and even the benefits of being a little “crazy” given the current context. “I would say you couldn’t have a more interesting period in your early career to study everything that could happen in a country”, Tin Htet Paing explains, “and to learn from our mistakes and to be better than us”.

Proximity, Precarious Creative Labor, and Media Work in Lived Contexts of Violence

The experiences of Myanmar’s young media workers provide a window into the creativity and emotional labor required to respond to a crisis such as the coup and its resultant forced experience of exile, especially because they are part of those communities directly targeted by the violence. In expanding our understanding of creativity beyond the common, purely aesthetic understanding of the term, we can gain insight into how media workers are reimagining their future through their unique forms of professional precarious creative labor. Examining the embodied experiences of Myanmar media workers and their affective proximity to the violence allows us to move beyond the stale notions of distance that dominate the literature on journalism in contexts of conflict.78

The women on our panel exemplify a professional sector of Myanmar independent media that did not exist at the start of the previous period of media in exile. Their professionalization over the years followed journalistic standards established in countries enjoying relative stability and comparatively strong democratic institutions, predominantly in the West but also including some nations in Asia. In the aftermath of the 2021 coup, however, Myanmar’s independent media workers, while committed to professionalism, are also committed to the success of the Spring Revolution. For some this has created an uncomfortable ethical dilemma over concerns of bias when covering the resistance forces and the exiled NUG.

While acknowledging that this phenomenon is not unique to the Myanmar context, it provoked the women on our panel to question what professional journalism looks like when journalists must live in and through the violence in their own communities. Their affective proximity to the violence, and the embodied experiences this entails results in a journalism that simultaneously provides factual news narratives and the kind of authenticity and emotion that better captures the lived experiences of affected communities than the distance of the dominant journalistic—and academic—discourses on independent, professional journalism. Yet the kind of detachment demanded by dominant journalistic frameworks can be especially difficult when the stakes are as high as they are in Myanmar; this is one of the specific challenges facing local journalists producing independent reporting on this crisis. Tin Htet Paing, for example, says that who she is, what she has experienced and where she comes from inform her work, and that this is helpful in her journalistic process:

I don’t really understand the old, classical notion of journalists being neutral and having no bias at all because I think no human can fully achieve neutrality and objectivity. I am a human being first, then a journalist. I don’t try to pretend I have no bias. I acknowledge every bias I have and address it when it reflects on my work when it shouldn’t. I also let my superiors vet my work. This is my process.

This professional precarious creative labor also brings with it its own forms of inclusion and exclusion that reinforce professional and social distinctions. Factors such as education, class, and the impact of ethnicity and geographical location provide different opportunities for different groups, such as the ability of some to leave the country, while others remain behind, performing especially precarious labor in support of the Spring Revolution. The precarity of media workers inside the country in the post-coup period, for example, remains a topic of concern for many young media workers.

Nevertheless, the coup has heightened media workers’ awareness of these inequalities and given them a better understanding of their country and its history. They are more aware now of what has been going on for decades, of their earlier lack of recognition of the different experiences between those in urban and rural, ethnic nationality-controlled areas, and of the problems posed by foreigners who parachute into decision-making positions or reporting excursions without an adequate understanding of the context. All of these insights shape their professional precarious creative labor, and perhaps most vitally their creativity in imagining a new future for Myanmar.

The professional precarious creativity of Myanmar’s young media workers helps us better understand the need for “contextual objectivity”, in which the desire to maintain professional ethics such as journalistic “objectivity” must also resonate with and adapt to the local cultural context.79 As Al-Ghazzi puts it:

The exclusive focus on journalism as a modern institution linked to democratic governance and rational choice comes at the expense of recognizing journalistic practices in other political contexts, even when these come at much greater risk to media actors. In these cases, journalistic ideals of objectivity, neutrality and balance naturally take different forms and have to be contextualized within their affective milieus.80

To the extent that Myanmar media pursue “objectivity”, they “pursue it with more collective, dialogic, egalitarian and multiperspectival methods” than has been conventionally taught in dominant approaches to journalism.81 This bodes well for the multicultural, inclusive and egalitarian future of Myanmar and its media that the women keynote panelists are working to create.

Endnotes

1 In this article we use Burma for the period prior to the 2010 elections and Myanmar for the subsequent period. For direct quotations or summaries of work by other authors we use their chosen terminology. For further reflection on this issue, please refer to Brooten et al., 2019a, pp. xvii-xix.
2 Kraidy, 2016, pp. 233-234.
3 Kraidy, 2016.
4 Joas, 1996.
5 While the term “creative labor” is often used to draw attention to personal qualities of individuals, our approach concurs with Smith & McKinlay (2009), who argue that media workers’ labor experiences are a result of “the organization of cultural production…. [and] freelance writers’ labor experiences flow directly from the logics of the industry in which they work” (as cited in Cohen, 2016, p. 3).
6 Democratic Voice of Burma (later renamed the DVB Multimedia Group), Mizzima and The Irrawaddy are three of the most well-known media outlets set up by ‘88 generation students, most from the majority Bama ethnic group, who had fled to the borderlands. All three relocated their operations inside Myanmar during the political opening, and then moved them back into exile in the wake of the February 2021 coup (McElhone & Brooten, 2019).
7 Al-Ghazzi, 2021.
8 Al-Ghazzi, 2021; Blussé, 2012; Hamilton, 2009; Murrell, 2015.
9 The Myanmar Media Update conference operated under the Chatham House rule. Direct quotes from the participants in this article are taken either from the conference itself or from other conversations, with their permission.
10 De, 2013; Larkin, 2003; U Thaung, 1995.
11 Lintner, 2001; Burma’s Media, 2016.
12 Linter, 2001; San San May, 2016.
13 Allott, 1993; Leehey, 1997.
14 Smith, 1991.
15 Allott, 1993; Lintner, 2001; Smith, 1991.
16 Allott, 1994; Leehey, 1997; Smith, 1991.
17 Allott, 1993.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Guyon, 1992.
21 Fink, 2001; Lintner, 1989.
22 Smith, 1991.
23 Brooten, 2003; Smith, 1991.
24 Brooten et al., 2019b.
25 Nwe Nwe Aye, 2012.
26 Crouch, 2016.
27 Kumar, 2014.
28 Heijmans, 2017; Trautwein, 2015.
29 Brooten et al., 2019b.
30 Committee to Protect Journalists, 2015.
31 Brooten & Verbruggen, 2017; Brooten et al., 2019b; Htusan, 2019; McElhone, 2019; Wade, 2017. Further analysis of Myanmar’s state-run and independent media responses to the Rohingya crisis is beyond the scope of this article, but for more information, see Kironska & Ni Ni Peng, 2021; Lee, 2019; McElhone, 2019; Myanmar Institute for Democracy, 2017; Wade, 2017.
32 UNOHCHR, 2022a; 2022b.
33 Free Expression Myanmar, 2020.
34 See also Htusan, 2019.
35 McElhone & Brooten, 2019.
36 Jasper, 1997.
37 Couldry & Curran, 2003, p. 4.
38 Joas, 1996, p. 199.
39 Ibid.
40 Jasper, 1997.
41 Brooten, 2006; Brooten & Swan Ye Htut, 2022; Chu May Paing & Than Toe Aung, 2021; Tharaphi Than, 2021.
42 Ristow, 2011, p. 17.
43 Atton & Hamilton, 2008; Forde, 2015.
44 Atton & Hamilton, 2008, p. 1.
45 Downing, 2001, p. v.
46 Downing, 2001, p. xi.
47 Atton & Hamilton, 2008, p. 1.
48 Brooten, 2003.
49 Brooten et al., 2019.
50 The more violent the attacks are against their communities, the more difficult it becomes to maintain the distance required for professional standards, a phenomenon that played out in the aftermath of the high profile hanging of four detainees by the Myanmar military (Jimmy, Phyo Zeya Thaw, Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw), two of whom (Jimmy and Phyo Zeya Thaw) were especially well-known democracy activists. These deaths were met with shock and rage by many. A week after the hangings appeared in the news, The Irrawaddy published the editorial, “The Myanmar People’s Desire: Min Aung Hlaing Must Hang”, accompanied by a graphic of the notorious senior military general hanging from a gallows, with a silhouetted, cheering and celebrating crowd behind him (The Myanmar People, 2022). While this article was clearly identified as an editorial, it stretches the boundaries of what even the most sympathetic observer would consider professional standards.
51 In the Myanmar context, we use ‘ethnic media’ to refer to small media outlets that function primarily to serve the information needs of a particular ethnic nationality (McElhone, 2019).
52 The notion of objectivity has been challenged in many academic disciplines, including journalism studies, where some have argued that “striving for objectivity has actually hindered us from adequately covering truth, giving context and achieving equity” and that journalists instead should be “seeking truth, providing context, and including voices and perspectives left behind by the adherence to objectivity” (Baleria, 2020).
53 Brooten, 2006.
54 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 3.
55 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 2; Brooten, 2022.
56 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 3.
57 Crete-Nishihata & Tsui, 2021.
58 Crete-Nishihata & Tsui, 2021, p. 4
59 MDIF used Facebook follower and YouTube subscriber data for its audience growth analysis (Myanmar Development Investment Fund, 2022).
60 Santoso, 2022.
61 Tatomir et al., 2020; McElhone, 2022.
62 Usher, 2019; Zelizer, 2007.
63 Crete-Nishihata & Tsui, 2021, p. 2; Kunnuwong, 2022.
64 Banki & Seng Ing, 2019.
65 Kraidy, 2016, p. 233.
66 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 10.
67 A significant number of senior Myanmar media executives now have staff working inside the country; in some cases, their work continues to be complemented by freelancers, CJs and social networks. See IFJ Asia Pacific’s anti-wage theft campaign, in collaboration with Myanmar Journalists Network and the Myanmar Women Journalists Society (IFJ Asia Pacific, 2022).
68 This panelist requested anonymity. This is a pseudonym.
69 This panelist requested anonymity. This is a pseudonym.
70 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 3. See also Kotisova, 2019; Rentschler, 2010; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019.
71 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 3. See also Ashraf, 2022.
72 As noted previously, in 2017 more than 700,000 Rohingya Muslims fled across the Rakhine State border to Bangladesh to escape military attacks that the UN later described as ethnic cleansing. According to the UN, the Rohingya is the most persecuted minority in the world (Myanmar Rohingya, 2020; UN Refugees, 2022).
73 Senior CNN international correspondent Clarissa Ward’s ‘parachute journalism’ trip into Myanmar in early 2021 was controversial, for example—see journalists Aye Min Thant’s (2021) and Thin Lei Win’s (2021) responses. For criticisms of the work of foreign analysts or “experts”, see Babu (2021) and Linn (2022). Calls to decolonize area studies and dismantle the rampant whiteness in Burma studies include Tharaphi Than (2021) and Chu May Paing & Than Toe Aung (2021).
74 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 11. See also Ashraf, 2022; Brooten, 2006.
75 We use the term “ethnic nationality” (rather than ethnic minority) as it is generally preferred by Myanmar’s ethnic groups.
76 Al-Ghazzi, 2021; Kotisova, 2019; Rentschler, 2010; Wahl-Jorgensen, 2019.
77 For example, poet, activist and post-coup revolutionary Maung Saungkha campaigned for the NLD in 2015 but left the party in 2018 after becoming disillusioned, in part by NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s decision to defend the arrests of two Reuters journalists who exposed a military massacre of Rohingya civilians. In 2020, his free speech youth advocacy group, Athan, found that more people faced legal action for criticizing the government under the NLD than under the previous military-linked government. While Aung San Suu Kyi is imprisoned incommunicado at present, Maung Saungkha fears that any future government under her leadership could one day choose to negotiate with the military or abandon the ideal of a federal union incorporating ethnic groups (The PDFs, 2022). See also Shoon Naing & Poppy McPherson (2018) and Nan Oo Nway (2022).
78 Al-Ghazzi, 2021; Ashraf, 2022.
79 Iskandar & el-Nawaway, 2004.
80 Al-Ghazzi, 2021, p. 12.
81 Hackett & Gurleyen, 2015, pp. 62-63.

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