Beyond the comfort zone: Western journalists in South and Southeast Asia

Journalist Fellow Tomasz Augustyniak explores what Western journalists can learn from practising their trade abroad
Tomasz Augustyniak

Introduction  

The paper I wrote during my time as a Journalist Fellow is aimed at outlining the profile of Western journalists who have worked in the newsrooms of selected countries in South and Southeast Asia. Having worked both at an Asian news organisation and as a foreign correspondent in this region myself, I realised that media practitioners from other parts of the world can learn there quite a lot, especially working alongside their local counterparts. My goal was to capture their interactions with host organisations, the challenges they face, the skills and expertise they develop and finally to determine the possible implications for the global practice of journalism.

The paper asks three research questions:

  • What are the main challenges in expat journalists’ daily editorial and reporting work, what new skills, knowledge and expertise do they develop?
  • How do local and expat journalists influence each other?
  • In which areas and how can these experiences be used to improve the global practice of journalism?

The broader goal of the study is to provide the first, explorative profile of a Western expat journalist in selected Asian markets, outline their skills, strategies, challenges and dilemmas.

The wider relevance of this study goes well beyond its scope. In the early years of the 21st century, a new trend has unfolded in the already globalised news world. Namely, international migration of media professionals on an unprecedented scale. Among them, a number of Western journalists decide to leave their previous jobs and seek life changing experiences in cultural circles other than their own, particularly in Asia. The phenomenon has been enhanced by the post-2008 global financial crisis, decline of print media, fast economic development of many Asian countries and the consequent shift of the world centers of power.

It is not only the expanding Chinese media industry that is hiring foreigners in large numbers. The same is happening elsewhere on the largest continent. There have been important news outlets recruiting foreign industry insiders in Cambodia (for instance Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post) and Indonesia (such as the Jakarta Globe). According to the HSBC 2017 Expat Explorer report, foreign employees of the ‘marketing, media and creative’ sector play a particularly significant  role in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There are a number of news organisations employing foreign staff in Myanmar and Thailand, in Malaysia and Singapore. They are also present, although to a much lesser extent, in Sri Lanka and the Philippines. A relatively small handful of Western reporters and managers work for Indian media.

Journalists in many Asian countries perform their work in circumstances greatly different from those in Western democracies, in the context of limited freedom of expression, unavoidable risk of self-censorship, increased surveillance and harassment.

A tiny minority of Asian states rank high in the 2019 Press Freedom Index (Taiwan, 42, being the highest-ranked on the continent, followed by South Korea).

China, still the most populous state on Earth, that often blocks media material considered sensitive and bans some means of communication (i.e. WhatsApp and Facebook), ranks 177/180. Singapore, the promised land for international expats with heavily controlled press, 151.

The press in these countries do not always function as government watchdog. It often becomes a tool of strategic communication and propaganda or simply serves national agendas. For this reason, joining news organisations controlled by undemocratic regimes has increasingly become a problem in the Western part of the industry and some of those who had joined have later decided to quit for ethical and political reasons.

But most of the day-to-day issues faced by expatriates come – as this study will show – from cultural differences. Westerners and Easterners often do not think, act or run their media in the same way and these differences are deeper rooted than most researchers dare to admit. I only raise  one aspect of this vast question: the journalism cultures.

Challenges faced by journalists working in South and Southeast Asian newsrooms , such as: lack of access to certain online resources, limited communications, and difficulties with protecting their sources, often force reporters to develop new abilities.

In undemocratic and non-Western contexts and hostile legal systems, journalists still play a vital role in everyday lives of societies. According to some media scholars – journalistic roles in political domain might include, aside from the critical and advocative one, also the analytical-deliberative, informational-instructive, collaborative-facilitative and developmental-educative one.

A note on the methodology

I have conducted structured, in-depth interviews with 15 media professionals who have worked for news organisations in countries of South and Southeast Asia. They were asked 82 questions that focused on their profiles, the media landscape they have operated in, the values and journalism role models in their host countries, the challenges that these media professionals faced, the way they interacted in their newsrooms, and finally the skills, knowledge and expertise they have gained along with the ways it could be used. This information has been collected through an online questionnaire or, in some cases, face-to-face, Skype and WhatsApp interviews. I have later run a series of direct follow-up conversations to grasp the nuances and the full complexity of the raised issues.

Almost 30 people in total have contributed to this report. Ahead of interviewing the expatriates, to establish the key question marks and main challenges faced by them, I have conducted 5 exploratory interviews with both Western expat journalists and foreign correspondents, present and former.

To limit the scope of the study, I have excluded China, arguably the largest market for expat journalists on the Earth. Due to its size and unique features, it should be subject to separate studies. However, among the people I talked to were professionals who have worked for Chinese state media. India has been excluded for similar reasons.

I have eventually decided to look at six smaller (and less explored by academics) countries of South and Southeast Asia – the regions from where I have reported as a correspondent – and my expertise has given me important insights. These countries are: Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Sri Lanka and Thailand. All the selected states ranked low (below the 100th position) in the World Press Freedom Index, therefore generally lacking free media. Overall popularity as an expat destination according to the HSBC Expat Explorer survey was another important indicator.

Key findings

The problem of censorship

Censorship is widespread throughout the studied region and both local and expat media workers have to deal with it. The vast majority (73.3%) of the interviewed expat journalists directly experienced censorship, the majority said they were forced to avoid some topics in their reporting. Some individuals also mentioned limiting journalists’ choice of stories by their companies’ partners and sponsors. Although self-censorship happens, it doesn’t seem to be prevailing.

Almost all (93%) the responders see press freedom in their host countries as at best problematic. They point out that local official sources are not very accessible whereas powerful individuals often have the tools to influence press coverage related to them. As many as 40% of the interviewees said they have been physically or verbally threatened, attacked or harassed in connection with their work. Expatriates were sometimes, although rarely, offered benefits for doing or not doing a story.

An overwhelming majority said political consequences of reporting are taken into consideration in their host countries more than they are in Western newsrooms.

This could be correlated with Asian journalist cultures that tend to prioritize collective needs and social harmony over frank, straightforward reporting (Blumler and Gurevitch 1995, Christians et al 2009, Muchtar and Hanitzsch 2013). Sometimes, it takes a good deal of reflection to realise political and social outcomes of a story that is about to get published.

Western journalists in Asian newsrooms are clearly outsiders. However it does not necessarily make their work more difficult. In fact, they said, standing out as an outsider could be useful as it often helps in getting access to sources. In addition to that, holding foreign citizenship usually makes expat journalists feel safer than their local counterparts. The reason for the latter might be the frequent harassment and persecution of local journalists by the authorities, that – as pointed out by the interviewees – does not happen to expat journalists to the same extent.

The gap in skills and technology

There seems to be a significant technological gap between the media in the studied countries of South and Southeast Asia and the newsrooms in the West as well as a large gap between the professional skills of Western media practitioners and those in the studied countries.

Journalistic roles and cultures

In different cultures, journalists and media are assigned various, sometimes contradictory roles. There are large differences between Eastern and Western journalistic cultures as well as between the studied countries themselves. 60% of those asked see that the differences between journalistic role models in their home countries and their host newsrooms are large. For example, it is not entirely clear whether journalists should provide their audiences with analysis, advocate for the socially disadvantaged, explain political decisions of their governments, mediate and reduce tensions in their societies, report things ‘as they are’ adhering to strict neutrality or advocate for social change. It isn’t always obvious that journalists should show their stories from two sides. Even within the small number of countries covered here, there is more disagreement than agreement when it comes to what journalism is about. Yet, we see some similarities. For example, educating the public seems to be recognised as an important role in all of the studied countries. Curating (identifying and organising information in the way available for users) is recognised and relatively highly valued in all of them. Supporting political leadership by conveying its positive image is relatively highly valued everywhere, but also monitoring political leadership seems to be recognised as an important role of the media by almost everyone.

The challenges

Foreigners hailing from the West mentioned general cultural issues and those related specifically to work culture as the biggest challenges to deal with in Asian companies. The first includes differing communication and leadership styles, habits and problem solving strategies in the host societies. The latter consists of command chain hierarchies within the organisation and decision making processes among others.

Other challenges were also present in the responses (in the order of importance):

  • journalism cultures (differing role models of journalists, editorial expectations, choice of stories)
  • infrastructural (roads, mobile connectivity, internet issues, financial services etc.)
  • legal (differing legal frameworks, for example regarding access to public information)
  • political (censorship, politically motivated or influenced editorial decisions, web access restrictions)

It is significant that legal and political problems) censorship and difficulty with obtaining public information included) are seen as less important than culture-related obstacles. The size of the sample is not large enough to draw any definite conclusion, but such responses are hardly surprising to any outsider who has worked in Asia.

Lack of influence

The expatriates said they have been generally free to express opinions in their workplaces, their colleagues were interested in their views and superiors were willing to use their expertise and knowledge. None of the interviewees complained about lack of autonomy in the workplace. Yet the majority of the responders do not feel they have significantly influenced the work culture or values of their organisations or colleagues. Whether cultural differences, political realities, local media systems or other factors are to be blamed remains unclear.

Despite the low mutual influence, there seems to be a lot of discussion going on in the newsrooms, especially regarding editorial judgment, journalism ideals, relationship between journalists and government officials and the role of a journalist.

Instead of driving massive change in newsrooms, it might forge more understanding between Asian journalists and the new arrivals from the West, especially regarding values.

The news skills and their usability

To work effectively, Western newcomers to Asian news organisations develop a new set of journalistic methods and skills. The interviewed media practitioners feel they have learned a lot during their time in Asia. In particular, they say they:

  • better understand their host societies
  • have increased cultural sensitivity
  • better understand their regions and current affairs
  • learned how to access local sources
  • gained experience of a multicultural environment
  • understand the roles that journalists play beyond liberal democracy
  • better understand their Asian audiences

Six interviewees said they now have more ‘flexibility when it comes to organisational models and editorial expectations’ and four declared to have developed new language skills. The interviewees have no doubt that their Asian expertise is very useful. Especially in four areas (in order of importance):

  1. Analysis of their respective host regions
  2. Foreign reporting
  3. Enabling Western governments and organisations to create better content aimed at Asian audiences
  4. Local media market analysis

There are even some areas in which these journalists say they could improve Western practices of journalism thanks to what they have learned in the East. These seem to be mostly (in the order of importance): foreign reporting, awareness of political consequences of reporting and protecting sources. The interviewees also mentioned the use of new technologies, recognition of more journalistic roles and audiences’ needs and improving work culture.

Conclusions

These media practitioners know exactly the modus operandi of their Asian newsrooms, preferences of editors, political pressures and their audiences. They have developed local contacts, specific methods of approaching sources and are aware of the roles of journalism beyond democracy and out of their own cultural circle. This unique practical knowledge could enable expat journalists to communicate better with these audiences, cooperate effectively with their Asian colleagues and provide expertise to Western governments and institutions.

80% of those interviewed doubt that the number of foreign media professionals in their respective host countries will grow. Hence they are likely to remain rare assets with very uncommon sets of skills and knowledge.