Hard News
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, March 23, 2019


Hard News



A day in the life of a Rangoon journalist

If you asked me whom I hated the most in Burma, I would say:  bus conductors, the country’s dictator and the director of the press censorship board. Perhaps in that order.

I used to travel every day from my hometown to downtown Rangoon, a journey of about 40 minutes on a filthy bus.  Wedged in on the crowded vehicle, I had to obey every order from the apparently omnipotent bus conductors—and their shouts of “Hey, why are you standing here? Go deeper inside, stand, here, move along.”

The conductors try to pack in as many passengers as possible, and the way they push you about is really scary. “Hey, don’t forget to pay!” they shout. “I don’t want to have to nudge you and ask for the fare.”

Many of the buses date from the 1940s and are too old to run reliably. They break down, making people like me late for work.

After reaching my stop, I would make for the office, climbing the stairs to the seventh floor. There was no elevator in our building and climbing those flights of stairs really made me fed up.

About 70 of us worked in one open-plan office. A pile of papers usually awaited me at my desk.

The one computer with Internet access stood in a corner of the room, locked. If we wanted to use it we had to ask the administration staff for permission.

Chat rooms and e-mail traffic were banned during office hours. How I hated that computer!

When monks took to the streets in September, our editor—who also owned the publication—allowed us to go and cover the events, but we were never able to write about them. I noticed that many Burmese reporters established contacts with international and exile media groups.

There was no satellite TV receiver in our office, either.

When we originally asked the editor to install one, so that we could watch coverage of the demonstrations, he surprisingly agreed. But when the shooting began he changed his mind and banned us from going into the streets or having any contact with the demonstrating monks.

“You really don’t want to see the news, that’s why I won’t install a receiver,” he said.

“The uprising will be over in two or three days, anyway,” he said. He was right—the uprising was short-lived. The satellite dish never was installed.

In our newsroom, only the management desk and the copy-typists worked with computers. We reporters and editors had to write our stories by hand. They were then edited and passed on to the typists. The printouts were given back to us to be checked for spelling.

Frequent power cuts interrupted the work routine. We had our own generator, but it sat outside our office and when it was running the heat and noise were unbearable.

There were about 25 reporters in the editorial department. My colleagues looked pale and skinny—not surprising, since they had to exist on salaries of around US $40 a month.

To help make ends meet, we were able to draw salary advances around the middle of the month. But that was a vicious circle—the money had to be returned at the end of the month and then the whole process would begin again.

There was little money for on-the-job expenses. Taxis and trishaws were taboo, so we had to climb aboard those crowded buses when out on assignment. Cameras, tape recorders and cell phones weren’t allowed.

We were also forbidden to make phone calls outside the office. A phone call to check a story or an engagement entailed returning to the office and climbing those seven flights of stairs again.

I love my profession, but I hated that office. I enjoy writing news stories, but I hated the censorship board, which checked our stories and instructed us every week to publish government propaganda.

The system forced my boss to compromise. He had two faces—a smiling countenance for the censors and a grimacing one for us.

He’s probably representative of many publishers in Burma, where compromise and accommodation with the authorities are necessary if you want to keep your business.

I was once invited to attend a censorship board meeting, at which cooperation between publishers and board officials was to be discussed.

Maj Tint Swe, head of the censorship board, offered us “words of wisdom,” particularly on how to speed up our submission deadlines to reduce the amount of time publications spent in the hands of the censors. By the time many publications reach their readers the news is long out of date.

It was a boring meeting—whatever advice we had to offer Tint Swe, it was clear he wouldn’t listen.

After a full day at the office, I was on my way home again by about 6 p.m., in a crowded bus and at the mercy of the conductor.

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