Running with scissors

There are very real dangers for journalists working in Asia, as Steve Tickner explains.

Simply to survive in an ever tightening market, many freelancers are taking in work in more risky environments. And in the back of the minds of many freelancers is that they are working without insurance or any kind of safety net, other than perhaps a network of fellow photojournalists and union support.

A Thai press photographer is led away from an antigovernment protest in Bangkok after being struck in the head and knocked to the ground by an unidentified object during a violent clash with police. © Steve Tickner

In a hostile or conflict situation, it is often safer to stay with other media, and in a conflict where a foreign language prevails, watching body language and stress levels becomes second nature.

You need good situational awareness and an exit strategy. If a situation escalates and you need to move quickly, think about your feet first; don’t trip and fall.

Many regional governments, including Australia’s, restrict access to body armour for individuals. This makes it hard for working freelance journalists to obtain quality body armour, significantly raising the risks of serious injury in conflict zones.

In Thailand’s current political upheavals, it is frequently only the credible eyewitness reporting of journalists that clarifies the conflicting and often exaggerated claims from each side circulating about events.

Foreign freelance journalists take cover from water cannon and tear gas at a violent confrontation near Government House during recent political upheaval in Thailand. © Steve Tickner

In Myanmar [Burma], where I am based, the government has abolished the country’s notorious censorship board, but Myanmar journalists still work in an ill-defined environment in which the Ministry of Information frequently uses the term “social responsibility” when referring to journalists’ freedom to investigate and report. Anything which “disturbs the peace and harmony of the nation” can be deemed against the law.

In addition, many parts of the country are frequently off limits to journalists, and recently the government placed further restrictions on visas for foreign journalists.

In December, Ma Khine, a journalist for Burmese media outlet Eleven Media Group, was sentenced to prison on charges of defamation, trespassing and “using abusive language”. It’s suspected the charges were due to her paper’s recent reports about corruption in the judiciary. She was the first Burmese reporter to be imprisoned since President Thein Sein released 14 jailed journalists in 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

In February, an editor and four journalists from Unity Weekly newspaper were arrested by the Burmese special police following their report about a secret chemical weapons factory in the country’s central Magwe Division. Police told the wife of one reporter that they may face charges for exposing state secrets.

Such episodes show that even when bullets aren’t flying, journalists face other dangers when they’re simply doing their job.

Steve Tickner is a photojournalist based in Myanmar and Thailand

This article is part of the 30 Days of Press Freedom campaign which began on April 4 and continues until World Press Freedom Day on May 3.

The joint campaign by the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA), The Walkley Foundation for Journalism and the International Federation of Journalists Asia-Pacific, calls media colleagues, friends and supporters to help raise awareness of press freedom issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

Follow the 30 Days of Press Freedom campaign on Facebook and on Twitter via the #30DaysofPressFreedom hashtag.