Stories from the ground: Asian women journalists say going the extra mile to get IP stories pays

Nov. 08, 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand – With information right at our fingertips, a journalist can write a story from calling sources and receiving press releases. But real stories happen on the ground and are best told when seen by the writers themselves especially in indigenous peoples communities.

Joan Carling, secretary general of the Asian Indigenous Peoples Pact (AIPP) said “if we are to promote their rights, their voices must be heard but we lack giving them spaces in the media.”

During the the four-day Asian Indigenous Voices Media Showcasing Fair 2015 held on November 4-7 here, indigenous peoples rights activists and media practitioners shared both trends and challenges in telling IP stories.

According to the AIPP, there are two-thirds of the approximate 370 million self-identified indigenous peoples found in Asia.

“Although all states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) voted for the adoption of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in 2007, most of them still refuse to respect and implement the indigenous peoples’ collective rights, especially to their lands, territories and resources and to self determination,” said Carling.

But the experiences of journalists who have covered the stories in indigenous peoples communities across the region have proven that there are opportunities present that may affect the lives of the ethnic minorities in positive ways.

Priyanka Borpujari has been working as a freelance journalist in India for about five years already. She worked as a crime reporter in Bombay before she decided to go freelance.

One of the stories she wrote was about women and their lack of access to toilets in a village in southern Assam, a state in the northeast of India. The story won her an award for the Indigenous Voices of Asia reporting on women.

Northeast of India is home to 220 ethnic tribes which “has lots of conflicts on issues of identity politics,” said Borpujari.

Borpujari told Davao Today during the Indigenous Voices in Asia Media Showcasing Fair 2015 here that she found about the story when she was covering the conflict situation in Assam where she needed to travel six hours by train. She needed to get to the toilet that time and there was none. And so she realized the need to tell the story of the women.

Ten days after the conflict between the militants and the adivasi (indigenous peoples), Borpujari decided to go to the area.

“That’s when the stories are about reconstruction,” she said, adding that she went from village to village.

“It’s funny because I have not even thought about it for a long time that there is no woman I am speaking to,” she said.

“I had my periods that time and it was winter, so it was just so difficult to find a toilet,” she said.

“That was when it hit me, what about these women?” she said.

“Even though there had been efforts by the government to take care of them in this conflict situation, there has not been any needs addressed for the women because nobody talks to them,” she said.

Read her story here: Longing for home, and a clean toilet

To get to the area, Borpujari needed to travel six hours by train and five days on the road to go from village to village. As a freelance writer, she paid for her own travels.

Pei Ling Gan, a 28-year old Chinese-Malaysian writer has to travel for 10 hours to get to the upstream villages along Baram river where a megadam is planned to be constructed.

Like Borpujari, Gan had to travel for 10 hours to get to the village.

Gan said the story about the construction of the megadam project and the struggle of the indigenous peoples community received only a bit of coverage from the media.

She said protests were launched by the residents.

“This dam got opposed a lot because it will affect an estimate of 20,000 IPs,” said Gan.

Three tribes namely Kenyah, Kayan and Penan will be affected by the construction.

Read her story here: Megadam Project Galvanizes Native Opposition in Malaysia

People benefit most

Gan said telling their story gave the Orang Asal (a general term in Malay language to refer to all indigenous peoples in Sabah and Sarawak) community “moral support”.

“Although the impact from publishing the story on NatGeo did not result in the dam project being reviewed or suspended immediately, the indigenous activists from Save Sarawak Rivers Network continued with their protests, they held a blockade at the proposed dam site for more than two years till today,” said Gan.

“What’s good is you get to unite three tribes because of one issue. Some of them used to fight against each other,” she said.

Gan clarified that the community “already got coverage from international news wires like AFP before, but I guess they were still glad to be able to get their story on the National Geographic as well.”

Gan was working for the community paper Selangor Times when she wrote the story in 2013.

She said IP stories are not popular in Malaysia because most journalists are “ignorant” of the IP situation.

“On one hand you cannot blame them because that is the state of our education system. When I was covering, I have no idea about it and I thanked my editor who was enlightened and who influenced me,” she said.

Borpujari said she circulated the story a lot and people got interested. She said one businessman from an opposite part of India offered her to get free supplies of a menstrual cup for the women.

“There were other women who were touched by the story. They just wanted to do something about it. To me that is a great that the people were moved,” she said.

Inday Espina-Varona, an award-winning Filipino journalist who is presently writing for said the most impact she had is when “I framed the problems of the entire indigenous peoples, for example the Lumads, in human terms.”

“When I give them a face, a voice,” she said.

She said the shares and response of ordinary people on her stories “that they have never even read about the Lumad before or did not have any idea of what the Lumad was except for maybe their costumes,” she said.

Varona said the first glimpse that she had on how people react to news on complex issues was when she wrote of the story about Lumad children asking for the Pope’s help, who at that time was in the Philippines.

Read her story here: ‘Children of the storm’ look to Pope Francis for help

“Lumad children have been braving storms for years. The stories talked about the children’s stories which are framed through theirs and their teachers’ eyes,” she said.

She said the shares on Facebook hit “almost 10,000”.

Varona said she realized “there was market for good stories because these are stories and are not manifestos.”

Varona’s blog post of her open letter to the president with regards to the incidents of killings of Lumads (non-Muslim national minorities in Mindanao) also got the interest of a group of young people who are mostly a fan of a local pop loveteam to gather support for Lumad schoolchildren.

Always ask why

Gan said journalists should always adopt a curious attitude.

“Because we are suppose to report the truth, ask why and report on the reality which is usually very complex. So you have to know the information from groups whether it fits to what the government is saying,” she said.

“Although Malaysia has the second highest (gross domestic product) in Southeast Asia after Singapore, we still have indigenous people who have no access to electricity, who dropped out of school. We still have homeless people in cities who are not being taken care of because there is no security support system for them, no shelter. And women still face a lot of barriers in politics,” said Gan.

“I guess journalists should ask “what about social development? What about inclusivity and is the development sustainable?” she said.

“It’s a journalist job to always ask why. Some of us really do not want to challenge the ruling power so much or are cozy with the ruling powers,” said Gan.

Borpujari said “journalists don’t have to tell IP stories; journalists have to tell good human stories.”

“And i think the problem is IP has been portrayed in the world as exotic creatures,” she said.

“We think we can go to indigenous peoples villages and then shove our cameras to their faces without asking them for permission. Who are we to do that?” said Borpujari.

“We who cover IP stories, we feel we are entitled without being sensitive to them, not even listening. A camera is intimidating. If we are capable of doing that injustice to them, imagine what the world is actually doing,” she said.

Varona said press releases even from the advocate groups “will never have the same impact the same way as you listen to them.”

“There are times when journalists go there, but only after sound bites. But you ought to respect your sources and give time,” she said.

“You are strangers to each other. Their personal stories don’t come out that easily,” she said.

Varona said good stories come out with a little bit of interaction and trust built between the IPs and the media practitioner.

But then challenges exist including language barrier, resources and the limited time media practitioners have.

She said a lot of journalists have mandates to submit a number of stories in a day, “unless you convince the desk to give you time.”

“Unless you use your own holidays, pay your own way, you will be able to come up with the statistics and still come up with a good story but not to a certain point that you can touch people and I think anybody who wants to be a journalist would tell you that the entire practice is all about the goal of touching people with their stories and hoping that something comes out of it,” she said.(

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