Exploring Germany’s Journalism and Elections

Nyein Ei Ei Htwe reports her impressions from a workshop for journalists from Myanmar, held in Berlin from October 25 to November 2 2014, supported by Heinrich Boell Stiftung Southeast Asia, the taz and the German Federal Foreign Office.

Travelling to an autumnally cold Berlin

It was a strange feeling to hear the announcement of 4 degree Celsius for a visitor from a dry-zone country before landing in Berlin. Actually, it was a really exciting moment for me and the ones who have never been to the famous wall that broke down to connect the East and West of Berlin, like a German spring. But there is more excitement for the schedule of the workshop ‘Under New Democracy’ in support of the transition period of Myanmar and its journalists. Yes, it was a special time to explore Germany’s election reporting, the situation of newspaper houses and journalists, to learn the differences between parliaments of Germany and Myanmar, and to meet with the reporting organizations which aim to support some areas of ethnic minorities in Myanmar.

Visit to Checkpoint Charlie

There were in total nine Myanmar journalists selected to attend the workshop. All got the special moment of visiting Checkpoint Charlie and Topography of Terror, meanwhile I was just landing at Tegel airport in Berlin. When TAZ-journalist Mr. Andreas Lorenz asked me to relax at the hotel in his welcoming words, I was forced by the cool weather and trees covered in red autumn leaves to decide against some sleep in the hotel although I was tired as I arrived one day later than the other members of the workshop. Ms. Sophie, the lovely and active woman who led our Myanmar group throughout the workshop waited for me to bring me to the famous Checkpoint Charlie. When the two of us were crossing the road together while caught up in laughter and conversations, the other members saw us and this was the time for reunion for us, as I was the only one who didn’t go with them.

Holocaust Memorial and Brandenburger Gate

Mr. Michael Sontheimer, co-founder of taz and now working as journalist for Der Spiegel lead us to walk to the Holocaust Memorial which is a place for the remembrance of six million murdered Jewish victims in World War Two. It was not very easy to walk with the cold breeze in different weather than at home but we even forgot the differences when we were persuaded by the design of Peter Eisenman for the Holocaust memorial place. He, Mr. Michael didn’t lose plan to visit the Brandenburger Gate which is a trademark of Berlin which used to be blocked by the Berlin Wall that was separating the two sides, East and West Berlin – both also very different in culture. As it is a trademark, it was crowded with visitors, but fortunately, we had a chance to see a performance for stopping gender discrimination in India and we took photos with some Indian ladies at the event. As I’m covering features for Human Rights issues of Myanmar, it is my issue of heart to have the chance to show out the needs and discriminations in my country, systematically and freely.

Struggling with the different time zone

As we Myanmar people are in the habit of three meals a day, we were hungry and had a big lunch at a Chinese restaurant, though Sophie said there would be a great introduction dinner in the evening. We visited the Mall of Berlin but just for window shopping and I was tired after walking for hours. After having relaxed for a moment, we were led by Sophie again to go to Cha Cha restaurant where we were to meet all the organizers of the workshop program. We were happy to meet again with some men who made interviews with us in Myanmar and to meet new faces as it was interesting to share the current situation of our country. We were not used to the different time zone and went to bed early night in the hotel after the program introduction but woke up early morning again to prepare for the next day.

Producing special pages for taz

The next morning, but actually it was evening in Myanmar, we walked to ‘tageszeitung’ (taz) daily newspaper house, a large brick building with many journalists. We had the chance to get to know how taz paper is published and what changes were made by taz leaders: Sven Hansen who is the editor of the foreign desk of taz with years of experiences in the Asia-Pacific region, Michael who is a member of the board of trustees of the taz panter foundation and Konny Gellenbeck, head of taz cooperative. It was interesting for us inquisitive journalists of Myanmar and we had many questions, ever too eager to know more about the taz panter foundation. We even forgot lunch but after we were served food with special arrangement of taz, rice and curry was another exciting moment. We did not visit another place but discussed about our supplement, reviewed it and searched for more ideas. There would be four special pages with our articles, covering about Politics, Elections, Parties, Ethnics, Youth and Human Rights in Myanmar. We had worked on those articles and already submitted them before coming to Berlin. But our great editors of taz were eager to find out more for the paper, stories from different angles and finally there were a few more stories to be assigned. I already covered a story about the Ethnic Political Parties of Myanmar but another new short story was about the representatives of each township in Parliament. So, there was not a lot of walking on that day but a bit of shopping, a bit of writing and some relaxing after meetings and the dinner program.

Reception at Heinrich-Böll-Foundation headquarters

But no need to worry about walking as we started the next day by visiting the Heinrich-Böll-Foundation (HBF) building, and if it is needed to sincerely admit, we had the greatest moments on the same day we also had the most tiring day under a tight schedule. We even forgot to question while we met with each representative person of some programs but it was because those programs were very interesting. We had the chance to inquire the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation, meanwhile we also had the big moment with the leader of the Green Party. As the situation of politics between Germany and Myanmar is very different, we asked her and even each other a lot of questions and shared experiences of the campaigning period of the latest German election.

Learning about the history of the Bundestag

The lunch break was only a tiny moment but we didn’t want to complain and just pass over to the next meeting because there would be another great chance to visit the Bundestag. Bundestag, the Lower House of German Parliament was not very near to the Heinrich-Boell-Foundation but we took the train and walked and finally we Myanmar journalists were there. Different, yes, totally different to visit the Parliaments of Myanmar and Germany but the buildings are similar in size and attraction of visitors, I suppose. If I mention only our special tour guide of Bundestag was amazing, I’d be wrong because all of them were well-trained, could speak six languages, were making jokes to get the attention of visitors, had professional skills and smart fashion. She explained about the last fire attack on the parliament, soldiers’ handwriting on scripts, the visit of the Myanmar President U Thein Sein, mail boxes including Hitler’s, pieces of the old parliament and so on. We walked through the parliament following our magical guide, then we walked up to the top for the best view over Berlin. There was no fog, rain or darkness in that time, so who would be luckier than us, we felt. When we said good bye to Bundestag, we were tired but needed to walk to the office of Reporters without Borders Germany. Ms. Silke Ballweg, a Media Relations Officer, asked about the situation of Myanmar journalists and we asked about what Reporters without Borders Germany will do to help Myanmar journalists. We explained about how a freelance journalist was killed on the day of our departure from Myanmar but she didn’t know that and the reporter of the organization who stay in Myanmar didn’t report that case. We felt tired and also sorry for that because we thought the journalists’ organizations should know about the big cases of Myanmar, for example the journalist who was killed by military for the first time. We forgot the timetable but couldn’t forget the hunger and tiredness but it made us sleep well at night.

Meeting German journalists

The next day was journalism for journalists and we started to know that German journalists are facing some problems on their profession. We met with the handsome and honest Mr. Sebastian Esser from ‘Krautreporter’ to discuss about the alternative and digital financing of journalism and distribution. We also discussed about the situation of Myanmar journalists in the current transition period. Then we had a special moment of a Group photo with professional photographer Anja Weber on the top of taz roof. Those photos would be published on the paper of our supplement by taz panter. And there was time for sharing knowledge and experiences from Mr. Michael on the title of ‘Journalism and ethics’, yes, we got many precious things for journalisms. All the days were full of excitement with learning, one more day began with Mr. Philip Wittrock, Spiegel Online reporter and with a discussion on election reporting and we found many more differences between public awareness of election in Myanmar and Germany. Then we have been to the prison of former GDR which was the former prison of the official state security service of East Germany under the Ministry for State Security which is similar with Myanmar’s notorious prison Insein. We had a long walk through the old prison and the guide, who was a former prisoner of that prison, shared his experiences. The tiny rooms and underground lanes of the prison made us to understand the value of fresh air and forced us to write a feature about visiting the old prison.

Federal Foreign Office and Cetlik Mosque

Another day didn’t start actively because we were at Federal Foreign Office and had a meeting with Mr. Matthias Biermann. He visited Myanmar once, I made an interview about the Goethe Institute and he answered well. On that day, it was just a visit to watch the advertisement movie of the Federal Foreign Office. I don’t blame on him that he did not answer some questions for us because we are also famous for being inquisitive questioners. Beside a Muslim cemetery, there is the Cetlik Mosque, the largest and most beautiful mosque in Berlin. Abdul Razzaque, a representative of the Muslim minorities in Berlin, works there and we met with him to discuss about the issue of Rohingya of Myanmar. We asked and he explained, also he asked and we explained. We discussed on how not to have more misunderstanding between the different religions and how much the work of interfaith religion groups of Myanmar would be interesting for him.

Public discussion with the title "Tricky road to elections"

The evening was not very easy going but we hoped we worked the best, because there was the Public Discussion with the title of ‘Tricky road to elections’ at taz cafe. Three female journalists worked as panelists, including me. Most questions were directed at religion issues, crisis among ethnics, 2015 election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and human rights in Myanmar. We answered and the attendees asked. We were satisfied by the questions and hope everyone was satisfied with our answers, too. One more day, we visited Bundespressekonferenz (Federal Press Conference) with our leader Mr. Andreas. We didn’t have the chance to ask questions but the experiences of free press which includes journalists asking the ministry’s representatives questions was surprising. The time came again for more articles for our taz supplement and we found more interesting angles to publish. Next day, we had a summary and evaluation workshop for more new story ideas; we discussed and tried to write them down at once.

It was time to say good bye to Berlin and also our thankful leaders for a precious workshop. Do you think we were tired enough to go back home? Actually, if you were in our shoes and experienced the moments in of Berlin together with us, you will surely be eager for more discussions.