Pulitzer Center grantee Emily Fishbein had worked as a freelancer in Kachin State, Myanmar, since early 2019, covering a range of issues from local activism to peace and conflict. But when COVID-19 began to spread, she was forced to make a split-second decision to move back to the U.S. in late March 2020. While continuing to report remotely, Fishbein soon embraced collaborative approaches on stories that she never would have thought to cover had she been back on the ground in Myanmar.
Fishbein’s two most recent Pulitzer Center projects, A Distant Peace: Voices From Rakhine State, Myanmar and Buried Hopes: Stories From Kachin’s Jade Mines, were each made possible by multiple local reporting partners from Myanmar.
Produced with co-author Kyaw Hsan Hlaing, A Distant Peace documents the ongoing conflict in Rakhine State between the autonomy-seeking Arakan Army and the Myanmar military. The unrest has displaced more than 200,000 civilians, many of whom are especially vulnerable to COVID-19 in internally displaced person (IDP) camps, and lack access to the internet due to government-imposed restrictions.
“Few international media [outlets] are covering the issues affecting Rakhine people,” Kyaw Hsan Hlaing said. “I hope that through reading these articles, the international community will become more aware and push the government to address problems including the internet shutdown, human rights abuses, and civil war in Rakhine State, and to promote peace and a harmonious society.”
Fishbein’s other recent project, Buried Hopes, examines Kachin State’s jade mining industry—highly profitable for those at the top, but notoriously dangerous for its informal workers. A July 2, 2020, landslide in the Hpakant region killed almost 200 miners, but has yet to result in any significant reforms. To chronicle the human and environmental toll of this disaster and the conditions in the mines, Fishbein worked with Kachin partners including environmental advocate Aung Myat Lamung, rights activist Stella Naw, photographer Hkun Lat, and artist and illustrator Shawanang.
“Hpakant is a place characterized by environmental disasters and ages of tragic struggles for locals and migrants, under a very sensitive political situation with weak rule of law,” Aung Myat reflected. “I wanted to share the tragic stories of the local people in Hpakant and its environmental disasters with a global audience. I hope this journalism project may help improve their lives and that the government may also pay more attention to their lives and to environmental protection.”
The jade mining project resulted in five articles in outlets including Foreign Policy, NPR, VICE News, and a comic in New Naratif. Three articles have been published in the Distant Peace series thus far, with the final two forthcoming.
“The clamp-down on travel dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic meant that Emily was unable to actually go Myanmar, a country she knows well,” Pulitzer Center Senior Editor Tom Hundley said. “But with her network of local reporting partners and some extraordinary resourcefulness in marshaling her contacts on the ground, she produced this series of important stories and got them before diverse audiences.”
Pulitzer Center General Intern Ethan Ehrenhaft spoke with Fishbein to discuss these two projects, the challenges of reporting remotely during COVID, and the development of her local collaborations. The following Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Ethan Ehrenhaft: How did the start of the pandemic impact your work as a freelancer overseas, especially in Myanmar?
Emily Fishbein: As far as I know, of foreign journalists who are reporting in English for international media, I was the only one in Myanmar who was not living in Yangon. I was living in the town of Myitkyina, Kachin State, which is in the far north of Myanmar. Living there, my main strength was that I was able to see the daily life and on-the-ground situation in an area that very few international media had really taken a strong, long-term interest in.
When COVID happened and I had to leave, I felt like the ground was out from under me. What is my place, what is my identity? How can I keep going as a journalist? I think that what ended up happening, kind of organically, is that it pushed me to be more creative about collaborative approaches and also about the scope of my journalism. When I was in Myitkyina, I was always writing stories that were very Myitkyina-focused. When I came back to the U.S., I didn't have that arbitrary distinction in some sense, because I'm not [in Myitkyina] anyways.
I looked more broadly at the geographical area of my stories and also conceptually, what are some issues and topics that are interesting to me where it doesn't really matter whether I be right there. I started with this jade project. I'm not physically allowed to go to the jade mine whether I'm in Myanmar or whether I'm in the U.S. [due to Myanmar’s internal travel restrictions on foreigners] so it's really no difference. That was one strong example of remote reporting. With the Rakhine project as well, I was not living in Rakhine State so I wouldn't have really thought about doing that project if I was still in Kachin.
My point is that I started thinking about what are things that I can do using remote reporting to my advantage and maybe push the limits of what I would've done if I was there and expand my horizons and my writing. The second thing I would say is this collaborative approach. In Myanmar, because I can speak some Burmese, I would often do the interview together with someone and then they would interpret the parts that I didn't understand, but I would mainly take the lead on everything. When I left [Myanmar], I felt like I really lost that control. At first I was feeling really disappointed and frustrated that I can't lead on every single aspect and have everything in my hands. But it also made me think about who are the people that I connected with and how can we work together?
EE: Could you talk a little more about how you developed some of these collaborations for covering the aftermath of the July landslide at the Kachin jade mine?
EF: I thought about my strength and I feel like it's writing about on-the-ground situations and the way human lives are affected. So I messaged Aung Myat, who ended up being my co-writer on the articles. I had never written anything with him before but we were friends. I said I was interested in writing about this and asked if he knew anyone I could interview. He said, "I'll take off the next week of my job and I'll go to the jade mine and I'll interview people.” He just said it on the spot, without any planning.
We started pitching a bunch of articles really fast. I don't remember the timeline exactly, but within a week we had four articles lined up. We applied for the Pulitzer Center grant and got it within 24 hours, which was really amazing. Otherwise it would have been a real stress to fund this entire project at all because Aung Myat and our photographer Hkun Lat were traveling to the jade mines. Then I told Aung Myat, "Do as many interviews as you can with as diverse a range of people as you can find there." We had a list of the topics and the types of questions but we just didn't know what we were going to find.
Then the team just grew from there. After Aung Myat went to the jade mine, he came back with 12 hours of audio files. That wasn't even the end of it, he had to do more interviews in Myitkyina. We really had to scale up our transcription team to get all of that transcribed, within a really short timeframe. We ended up having 120 pages of transcribed material.
EE: What were some of the other challenges reporting on such an emotional issue from thousands of miles away? One thing that stood out to me at the bottom of the first article was this perception amongst some media and the government that these jade miners were greedy and part of this resource grab, but you made a point of telling very personal stories.
EF: The type of journalist I want to be is somebody who portrays the people that I interview in a dignified way. Because a lot of times the people who are featured in stories are victims in many ways. They've been oppressed or faced a major tragedy or struggle or suffering. I think that that is really important to highlight, but to do it in a way that is showing the dignity of that person and getting their voice in a way that is respectful to them.
I think that that is where working with a local team can really have a value. I always check to make sure that my local partners who are leading the interviews have a say in developing the questions and also adding in questions during the interview, according to the situation. [They are] really able to understand the situation and then ask questions that are appropriate, sensitive, and relevant. I also go through that transcript word by word with the person that I'm collaborating with and we ask ourselves, how do we choose sentences [from hour-long interviews] that are going to highlight these themes in a way that's respectful to [the interviewee]?
Going back to that idea of the greediness [of miners]. That is definitely a big clash that you can see when you look at the official narrative and then when you look at the local situation. There was this quote going around where a government official called the miners greedy. But when you interview anyone who's there, they said, "Well, how about these people who are controlling the industry who are earning huge amounts of money and then they're calling us greedy for just barely scraping by risking our lives?" It's obviously a huge clash and I think that that story is something that is so obvious to anyone when they look at the real situation. Letting that speak for itself is what we were trying to do through the project.
EE: While most of your previous reporting focuses on northern Myanmar and Kachin State, your ongoing project A Distant Peace looks at Rakhine State in the west. How did that geographical shift occur and how did you develop that project from the U.S.?
EF: I think that Kachin and Rakhine are underreported in different ways and for different reasons. When you look at Kachin, it's very far from Yangon, so people usually fly to get there. It's also not as well known internationally, so there may be less interest for journalists to go there. With Rakhine, I think that there's so many concerns related to access and barriers because it's such a sensitive topic now. The Arakan Army has been designated by the Burmese government as a terrorist organization, which means that, as a journalist, if you interview them you yourself can face legal charges. Physically, foreign journalists are really granted almost no access to most of the state.
So there's huge barriers to writing about what's going on in Rakhine. Although it's not really called a shutdown anymore, there's only 2G service allowed, so essentially there's no internet. I had been really nervous, to be honest, about covering Rakhine. I lived there myself in 2015 for a year during my former work in the humanitarian field. I have contacts there and I'm familiar with the situation as much as I can be, but I just felt like there were insurmountable barriers to being confident and able to write about it.
So I had been keeping an eye on it from a distance. Then there was a guy who's from Rakhine who had been doing some research and he posted it on Facebook. I read his report and thought it was really insightful and interesting. I contacted him about that, not even about journalism, and said, "I really liked your report, I'd love to talk about it with you sometime." We ended up having this really long conversation. I felt like we had a really similar outlook and approach and interest. So we both thought, "Why don't we write an article together?" There was nothing stopping us, even though we weren't in the same place physically and had never met, that's not really important anymore because nobody's meeting anybody during the pandemic.
I feel extremely strongly that the local partners who are involved in these [articles] are more than just a fixer or whatever term you want to use. They are as integral or more so than I am myself. I really push to make sure that they're always on the byline and that we're always working on it as collaboratively as possible from the very, very beginning. When we prepare a pitch, an interview list, or the interview questions, we look it over together. Every single step of the way everyone has had the chance to read it and offer input.
EE: Is there a particular theme that spans both these projects that you’d like to emphasize for audiences?
EF: If I could pick one theme to emphasize, I would say the really amazing strength and power of local journalists, which I think is so underestimated in the world of international media. I think a lot of time it's not really acknowledged or appreciated how much hard work local journalists are doing. Recently, when I was contacted to give a presentation for some high school students in California through the Pulitzer Center, I invited my two local partners to join and it was an incredibly meaningful experience for all of us, being able to connect with these high school students and to know that people in another part of the world were reading and caring about the issues in our work.
It can be a really empowering and amazing experience to have that collaboration. I think the Pulitzer Center has allowed me to do that because otherwise the budget for freelancers is really thin. Usually when you split it with a team, the money doesn't go far enough. Having this extra budget has enabled me to expand the team in a way that would not have been possible otherwise. I feel really excited and proud of the teamwork and our outputs as a result.