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On the night Aung Naing Soe was released from prison in late December, friends, family and colleagues welcomed him home with gifts, flowers and hugs.
The photojournalist had been held in Yamethin prison, near the capital city of Naypyitaw, since October, along with three colleagues, after being arrested for filming with a drone while working as a fixer for the Turkish broadcaster TRT. The group—which also included Malaysian reporter Mok Choy Lin, Singaporean camera operator Lau Hon Meng and local driver Hla Tin—was sentenced to two months’ jail under legislation dating to 1934. While in detention Myanmar Buddhist nationalists slandered him online, accusing him of being linked to Islamic terrorists.
But he considers himself lucky. More serious charges, under which he faced up to three years imprisonment, were dropped shortly before his release. Two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, are facing up to 14 years in prison on Official Secrets Act charges. They were arrested on December 12 after meeting police for dinner in Yangon while investigating a mass grave in Rakhine state.
As part of a series on fixers across the region, Splice caught up with Aung Naing Soe recently to discuss the role fixers play in Myanmar as the country becomes increasingly hostile towards journalists.
How did your arrest change your thinking about the role of fixers in Myanmar?
I’ve got this idea now that fixers need to get some kind of legal protection in Myanmar. Because if something bad happens to fixers, some people think they are just translators, not journalists. So, at least, we should have a network of fixers to help each other, to share knowledge with each other, or to share contacts. So we should have a small organization, and I’d like to help build it, and I’ve been talking to some of my fixer friends about it.
We should also have some accreditation that can say, “This guy is a fixer, this guy is not a terrorist,” you know (laughs). This guy is a journalist, he exists, his job officially exists.
"Journalists who are working for foreign media, including fixers, are portrayed like we are selling information about the country to foreigners." -- @aungnaingsoeans
What other dangers do you see for fixers working here?
Especially around this time, journalists who are working for foreign media, including fixers, are portrayed like we are selling information about the country to foreigners. Some fixers, including me, had their pictures published on social media saying, “They are with foreigners, they are working for foreigners, you guys need to take care,” so we’re getting defamed as well as being arrested.
And in certain areas like Rakhine state or some ethnic armed areas, it can be dangerous to be with foreigners. They wouldn’t [lay a] hand on foreigners, but you might get in trouble.
Why do you think Myanmar journalists are bearing the brunt of the hatred directed at foreign media?
It starts from a misunderstanding. People do not understand that fixers, journalists, are just doing their jobs. They think that fixers are selling the country’s information to foreign organizations. Also, they have been won over by the ideas of nationalists.
Min Min and his team at Root Investigative Agency are putting their lives at risk to explain what's happening in Rakhine state.
Foreign journalists here are getting more worried about putting their Myanmar colleagues at risk. What responsibilities do you think foreign journalists, and news organizations, have towards fixers?
They should stand with you if something goes wrong. So, for our case, TRT really did a great job—they helped me and my family a lot and they really took responsibility for us. All news organizations should be like that.
Also before they start a project, if these news organizations could issue temporary accreditation cards, that would be fantastic. Because [when we were arrested] we were asked, “Who do you work for?” and we didn’t have anything to show them for an answer.
For foreign journalists, you need to trust the fixer you hire. You really need to trust them, because they are local experts. Sometimes the client will think, “Oh they are saying they can’t do it because they don’t want to.”
Have you had any negative experiences with clients who didn’t seem to understand that relationship or didn’t want to listen to advice?
Some foreign correspondents who already have a lot of experience, they have studied in very nice universities and they’ve worked in many dangerous countries. But when they arrive in Myanmar they don’t understand the rules. And when they keep pushing, you know, it’s really risky.
But I’d like to add something. Being a fixer is so great, even though it’s risky. Because you make good money and you get very good experience and knowledge from amazing journalists. You can travel a lot, I mean I like traveling, so it’s an amazing job. So, I want to keep working as a fixer despite what happened to me. Because it’s worth it for the risks.
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