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What Does the Absence of Freelance Journalism in Bangladesh Tell Us?

The lack of a freelance market not only puts immense pressure on existing journalists, juggling tighter deadlines and increased workloads, but also puts pressure on the media houses which, without quality content, cannot remain relevant to their readers.

In many ways, reading Jessica Muddit’s Our Home in Myanmar was an eye-opening experience for me. 

This powerful book illuminates a nation shrouded in mystery and often misconstrued due to decades of isolation. Unlike most Westerners who merely skimmed the surface, Muddit plunged deep into the heart of Myanmar’s society, capturing the lives and experiences of its people.

Myanmar has long been languishing in the shadows, often mentioned in the same breath as North Korea. I recall a celebratory article in TIME magazine marking the return of Coca-Cola to Myanmar in 2013, making it the third country after North Korea and Cuba to regain its fizzy treat. This association speaks volumes about the limited understanding of this Southeast Asian nation.

Jessica Muddit,
Our Home in Myanmar
Self published (2021)

Muddit’s book transcends this superficiality. Drawing upon her meticulous academic training and seasoned journalistic instincts, she offers a nuanced portrait of Myanmar during its tumultuous years from 2012 to 2016. This period witnessed a brief flicker of democracy under Aung San Suu Kyi, before the military reasserted its grip. Muddit’s vivid chronicle provides not just a captivating read but also a treasure trove of insights for researchers across diverse disciplines.

For me, a personal revelation emerged from these pages: the vibrant state of freelance journalism in Myanmar. I was very surprised to learn that it’s actually possible to thrive as an independent journalist, selling stories to the local media – a stark contrast to the harsh realities of freelance journalism in my own country, Bangladesh.

Decent living through freelance works

In 2012, Muddit moved to Myanmar, after her year-long stint in some Bangladeshi newspapers, to have a fresh start along with her Bangladeshi partner. There, her initial stint at the Myanmar Times ended abruptly, but instead of seeking another full-time position, she took a leap into freelance reporting. What she found surprised her: thriving local media outlets paying handsomely for quality content.

With each piece fetching at least $100 and landing 10-15 commissions monthly, Muddit earned $1200-$1500 which was enough for a comfortable upper-middle-class life in Yangon. This, in a country with an eighth the GDP and half the per capita income of Bangladesh!

On the outset, it might seem baffling as Myanmar, riddled with decades of military rule, ethnic conflicts, and protectionist policies, ranks lower than Bangladesh in press freedom (173rd vs 163rd). However, if someone delves deeper into the journalism practiced in the country, they would be surprised to find out that amidst this seemingly dystopian landscape, a few brave and truly independent publications like Frontier Myanmar and the Irrawaddy are not only producing critical journalism under pressure but also thriving.

These publications understand the value of their reporters’ contributions and compensate them well, recognising that quality journalism demands fair pay and ensures the public’s right to know.

This is not unique to Myanmar. Even Nepal – way poorer in terms of the size and prospect of the economy – than Bangladesh, had the presence of strong independent media houses like Himal Southasian and the Record Nepal. The latter has seized their operations now because of financial constraints but they used to pay freelance reporters more than $100-a-piece.

Why hasn’t the market thrived here?

In contrast, freelance reporters in Bangladesh rarely find opportunities beyond soft-feature pieces written from their desks. In-depth articles requiring fieldwork or research are practically nonexistent here. To add to that, payments are abysmal and usually hover around $10-$30 per piece, making sustainable monthly wages nearly impossible.

Also read: Making Prothom Alo ‘the Enemy’ in Bangladesh

Besides, the country’s shift towards authoritarianism has fostered a culture of ‘thank you journalism’ where media outlets primarily parrot the government’s narrative. This stifles critical reporting, a cornerstone of freelance journalism.

Freelance reporters often contribute to various publications to build their brand and credibility, aiming for opportunities with international outlets offering better pay. However, journalism aimed at only flattering the government could jeopardise these aspirations, as many international outlets frown upon such practices.

Bangladesh mirrors the global trend of digital growth but this crucial element – a robust freelancing market – is completely absent here. That’s why newsrooms here fail to produce in-depth features or long-form articles, which most of the media houses in the West as well as in neighbouring India have started to outsource from a battery of freelancers – both for reduced cost and enhanced quality. 

This lack of a freelance market not only puts immense pressure on existing journalists, juggling tighter deadlines and increased workloads, but also puts pressure on the media houses which, without quality content, cannot remain relevant to their readers.

Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka.