New Internationalist

Stale news is best

Issue 411

Aye Chan Myate worked in a newsroom in Rangoon that was like no other. She looks back on a typical day.

Photo: Patrick Brown / Panos Pictures
Photo: Patrick Brown / Panos Pictures

The morning sun enters my room quietly. Though I don’t want to leave bed just yet, today is Monday, deadline day. So, I have to report at work as early as possible.

I am under a lot of pressure – both at work and in Rangoon. Lately I find the city too hot, too crowded and too noisy. I hate downtown Rangoon, but that’s where my office is.

Every day I travel to Rangoon from my quiet home town, Thanlyin or Syriam, on the other side of Bago (Pegu) River, a 40-minute ride on an always crowded bus. On the bus, I have to obey every order from conductors who seem to have absolute power. They are so rude and always shouting: ‘Hey, why you standing here? Go deeper inside! Stand here! Shove inside! Come on, shove in!’

Sometimes they push my back roughly. They want to cram in as many passengers as possible. ‘Hey, don’t forget to pay. I don’t want to touch you and ask for bus fare.’

Many of the Thanlyin-Rangoon buses date from the 1940s. Sometimes their engines get exhausted on the way, forcing a stop. On those days I am sure to be late for work.

Panting, I climb the seven floors to my office – we have no elevator.

I get in and sign the staff attendance book. It’s 9.35am – five minutes late! The administration staff underline my name and I get the red card, even though I am executive editor and only two persons rank above me in the office.

Never mind – let’s begin the day. On my table, a pile of papers has been waiting for me. I sit and start editing news written by our reporters and discussing items with them.

We all sit in a hall, all 70 of us.

We have only one internet connection between us, but the computer with the connection is locked in the corner of our room. If we want to go on the web we have to ask permission from administration staff. If we are allowed use the internet, we have no permission to visit chat-rooms or send emails during office hours. I hate using the internet in my office.

When the monks took to the streets last September, we went to cover the events almost daily. My boss allowed us to go and he went as well. But after the military government gave a serious warning that it would crack down on the monks and protesters, my boss suddenly changed his policy. He said: ‘No more going outside, and I won’t allow you to go to see monks.’

He added: ‘The uprising will be finished in two or three days.’

He was not wrong – the uprising was over.

We watched satellite television, CNN and Al Jazeera, at our friends’ houses. But in our office there is no satellite receiver. One of our editors made a daring proposal at the staff meeting and asked our boss to get a satellite receiver. His reply was stunning: ‘Really, you don’t want to see the news, that’s why I won’t install the receiver. I can buy it, but I won’t.’ End of story.

Strangely, in our newsroom we don’t have computers except for the management staff and typists. We write stories on paper with a pen. After writing and editing, we pass our papers to typists. After typing them, they print out copies and we check them for spelling.

Electricity is a dominating factor, what with the frequent blackouts. We have our own generator sitting on the verandah. But when it runs the temperature in the room rises, as does the noise. We all would like to run away from our room.

There are about 25 reporters working on our journal. All look pale and impoverished. It’s understandable – their salary is $40 a month and the married ones need to look after their families. It’s not enough.

So they borrow money from our office every month. Every 15th of the month we can get a loan from the office. So we all wait for the arrival of that day. We usually borrow about half of our salary and then return it at the end of every month – a vicious circle!

I love my reporters and I would like to help them out, but I can’t. They have to go out every day to look for news, and they take crowded buses. They can charge for a bus fare but have no permission to take a taxi or trishaw. They have no cameras and no tape recorders. They have no permission to make phone calls from outside, let alone use cellphones. If they want to make a call, they must use the office phone – that means coming back and climbing seven floors!

We editors can’t say anything about the unjust management. I love my profession, but hate my office. Do I have a choice?

I love to write news stories but I hate the censor board. The censor board vets our stories and they always tell us to publish government policy and propaganda articles, week after week.

My boss has two faces. One face is all smiles for the censor board, the other grimaces at us. I think many journal publishers must be similar to him. They all want to hold on to their business and so are self-interested, always ready to compromise, to give in so as to survive.

Now it’s 2.00pm – my boss calls me to go to the censorship office for a meeting.

As we arrive, journalists of all the journals and magazines are sitting in the meeting room, waiting to hear words of wisdom from the head of the censor board, Major Tint Swe.

The meeting has been called to discuss co-operation between journals and the censor board, particularly how to speed up our submission deadlines, because all journals sit one week in the hands of the board’s officials – meaning that when news reaches readers it’s outdated.

But to me it is a boring process and one-sided – whatever suggestions or advice we offer to Tint Swe, he won’t listen to us anyway.

At around 6.30pm I head back home. My sons will be waiting for me, especially the youngest one, who is only one year old.

I leave my office and run to the bus station. Filthy and crowded buses are waiting for me again. I would like to be back home as quickly as possible. I have no choice but to get into a bus.

It’s dark as I step into my home. My sons are waiting for me. ‘Mum!’ they scream. When I hear them, all my tiredness flies away.

Their grandmother has prepared dinner – she is lighting a candle, as the electricity is gone again. After the darkness, the light, of course, would come – we all live with that hope. Don’t we?

For five years Aye Chan Myate (a pseudonym) was executive editor of two journals published from Rangoon. She left Burma earlier this year and now reports for the Burma issues magazine The Irrawaddy.

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