You Had Me at Highly Repressive Nation

Growing up, I thought fantasizing about reporting from a conflict zone was pretty noble and brave. Also, bad-ass (Read: The Girls at the Front).

I still nurse that dream – even if my frivolous wardrobe screams otherwise, less loudly than my mom when she says I’ll probably end up jailed, dead or in labor camp.

But given how I get really excited, heady and ego-drunk from trips to places associated with the terms “regime” and “isolated” and “fledgling democracy,” I probably would make a better disaster tourist than I would an earnest, thoughtful and humble conflict reporter and peace journalist.

The “news” channel in our hotel room at Yanggakdo. The anchor sounded like she was always about to cry, and it’s pretty close to the Tumblr,
Kim Jong-un Looking at Things. Photo from me.

Thankfully there are people who embody these good qualities and don’t brag about it, sticking less to self-promotion (I suppose a necessity in the tough job market) and more on genuine public service (a necessity with or without a tough job market). I met some of them at the recent AAJA New.Next.Now media conference (hashtag N3Con), which tackled a range of issues affecting the profession and news industry in Asia and the world.

They were panelists in the talks on reporting in Myanmar and North Korea, the latter of which got extended air time in a discussion with Simon of Koryo Tours (but more on that later, when I upload his video).

While you could argue that North Korea is much more closed to media than post-authoritarian Myanmar, reporters there are struggling with very similar issues at the moment, namely weak information infrastructures, a general disdain or hostility towards critical journalism and a dearth of truly trained local journalists.

Panelists during the “Mesmerizing Myanmar” forum: Annie Chenaphun (in hot pink), May Thingyan Hein and Swe Win. Moderated by Professor Ying Chan, who made this panel possible and who was deservedly the big winner in this year’s raffle. Photo from n3con.com/HKU’s JMSC

Reuters’ Annie Chenaphun described Myanmar as the “hardest place in the world for news.” She describes having to sneak in through the Thai border illegally to report stories.

(Although, from my and my friends’ experience, you can fudge a little on your visa application by giving the embassy a business card that states something other than – but close to – what you do. Mine was “housewife.”)

To get around the city, she needs a competent fixer, a driver and, most important, a way to transmit stories. Due to the unreliable internet, she depended on satellite data transmission during the recent election. One of Chenaphun’s tips is to head to The Strand for a US$2 coffee and use their free internet for an hour, which is arguably pretty fast. (Also a good spot for amazing Wi-fi is 55th Street Cafe, where you can have beer while you file your story.)

But I was most enthralled by the Myanmese speakers, May Thingyan Hein, who secretly set up her news agency Myit Ma Kha Media Group, and a former political prisoner turned freelance journalist Swe Win, whom you probably recognize from The New York TimesLatitude blog.

Swe Win was, to me, the most extreme example of putting yourself on the line to get the truth out. He has difficulty getting to centers of conflict, and when he does, he is harassed – including in his hometown. He also says he has “lost a lot of friends” because of his stories.

(He had been sentenced to 21 years in prison for his activism, but his term was cut short to seven by an “amnesty” that he says has negative connotations relating to the government’s maniacal “detain and release” policy. In some turnaround that Swe Win didn’t elaborate on, he ended up getting a scholarship to the University of Hong Kong’s journalism program.)

It is particularly difficult because he is a freelancer and a local to boot. Foreign journalists, if caught reporting where they aren’t allowed, can be banned. But locals will be jailed. His advice to reporters is: “Don’t trust the army!”

Similarly, May Thingyan Hein has had to use numerous pseudonyms, all of which were banned. She admits, with a laugh, that she doesn’t earn money from her news agency and her family supplements the gap by selling some land. She keeps it going because she believes, rightly, that there is a need for her service.

Aung San Suu Kyi? The panelists were not big fans, particularly as they start to see she is faltering on certain issues such as ethnic conflict. Photo from the National League of Democracy.

Reading from a prepared speech in harried English, May Thingyan Hein explained that the local press is simply too young and inexperienced. There were just three newspapers in the country for five decades, and the Ministry of Information and Press Council (founded 2012) are only recent players.

The ministry, she said, issued licenses to 23 Myanmese-language and two English publications, but the private dailies in particular are struggling because of a shortage of reporters and editors. Asked later what the short-term solution for this could be (hire me and others maybe? hehe), she said it was to “build capacity” – that is, strengthen training.

I asked if guerrilla media had flourished during the junta, much like the Philippines which had the onion-skin newsletters, the “underground” radio broadcasts and the seemingly unassuming lifestyle magazines that buried hard-hitting news in their pages. They did go a little off-tangent and said “you no longer need to fear the authorities” as much as before.

For a country that’s just beginning to switch its narrative, Myanmar has high story potential at the moment, ditto China, North Korea and to a lesser extent India. The pressing issues are ethnic conflict, the rush of investment into the country and, surprisingly, the state of media and the flow of information.

Yet developing a truly mature and, shall we impose, “world-class” press will take a long time, they admit, but it’s  nice to see that, despite the dysfunction, the passion and dedication are already there.

I kept these souvenirs and read them from time to time when I want a laugh because the language IS funny. Back issues that are late by a month or two can be ordered from tour agencies. Photo from me.

If Myanmar is the hardest place on earth for news, then North Korea is the unicorn lair.

Just ask Associated Press’ Korean peninsula bureau chief Jean Lee and The Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief Barbara Demick, who is best known for writing every political science and journalism undergraduate’s wet dream, Nothing to Envy.

The talk was moderated by longtime North Korea observer Steve Herman of Voice of America, who we chatted up at the end of the conference. I asked how he had access to DPRK state broadcasts from Seoul, and he smiled and said something like, “With a computer and VPN, there is a way.”

Despite the very weighty subject, it was a scintillating and humorous talk. And they’re all SUCH NICE PEOPLE!
Photo: JMSC

The Demick-Lee mash-up was excellent because they had insights from both sides of the border. Demick has extensively interviewed very recent North Korean defectors and DPRK citizens who enter China not thinking they would leave their homeland forever. (There are about 3,000 of them a year, she says.)

Lee, meanwhile, heads a small team in their Pyongyang office, getting a very unique perspective from within, which often clashes with what is reported outside.

During the Unha-3 rocket launch, for instance, while the world was screeching and demanding to know if there was a need to run to a bomb shelter, Pyongyang was dead calm and business-as-usual – and she thinks maybe the rest of the world shouldn’t panic, either. And while China and the international press read so much into the Beijing envoy not being present in Pyongyang, Lee says “he is always around.”

Lee can do very unique man-on-the-street interviews because she “speaks better North Korean than South Korean,” much to the chagrin of her family. “But there’s a lot that doesn’t get translated,” including witty jokes, anecdotes and every North Korean’s favorite pastime apart from eating – gossip.

The Associated Press has a reporter and photographer in Pyongyang, and has had a TV operation since 2006. The North Korean staff, Lee says, are “in the business of propaganda” but are fascinated with the foreign style of journalism.

To get stories out, the AP staff have to buy expensive internet/mobile access. Most North Koreans don’t have access to what they call the “international internet.”

Kim Il-sung (right) was more well-loved than his son Kim Jong-il. Like many media reports last year, experts at the forum said Kim Jong-un is trying to essay his grandfather’s cuddly and youthful approach. Photo from me.

Demick finds she gets the most honest, truthful and up-to-date accounts of life in the Hermit Kingdom from the defectors or, shall we say, permanent tourists. Through them, she gets a pulse of what the regime may be up to. There was a time, she said, when she thought North Korea was close to collapse under Kim Jong-il’s rule. But lately, the people coming out are a little more upbeat and optimistic about the new leader.

She also gets a picture of the hunger situation there, for example, saying that it is considered less a famine than a “chronic food shortage.” “This year [the harvest] was a little bit better, but not great,” she says, based on the news that filters out of there.

She advises journalists and the public to look at North Koreans as real people and find a human side instead of focusing on the regime. But it’s easier said than done – she does have a cloak-and-dagger system of reporting on these defectors, only interviewing at night, not revealing their real names, turning off her cellphone during the interviews and protecting the same people she has worked with for seven years.

North Koreans on their way to some mass exercise or other, we didn’t get to know. Jean Lee says North Koreans are much more fun to interview than South Koreans. Photo from me.

But how authentic is the information or actual news-gathering experience? Lee, who says she works until 2am and packs her schedule with lunches, dinners and interviews with various sources and occasional trips out to the countryside (not always with a government “minder”), admits it is very difficult to confirm everything. But “you have to be alert” and make a skill out of reading between the lines.

(With such a packed schedule, Lee ice-skates to destress in her free time and also sings karaoke with her North Korean staff. The hits? Carpenters, Abba, The Beatles, Christina Aguilera.)

Demick, meanwhile, says she has a pretty good sense of whether or not someone is telling her the truth; often the tears say it all. And what she gets from her sources IS the truth.

But in North Korea, as in Myanmar, those little truths don’t add up to a whole picture. For all her access to the country and her front-row view of what the propaganda machine is doing (they are at the moment trying to promote Kim Jong-il’s youth and leadership to prompt comparisons to his well-loved grandfather), she says it is still a mystery; it’s still opaque.

Demick described it as a jigsaw puzzle, with journalists, experts and even think tanks trying to piece it all together. But at least through these people’s efforts, we’re inching there.

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