The Role of the Media in Rohingya Crisis

Published: 30 November

Country: Myanmar

Screen_Shot_2017-11-30_at_08.40.08When large crisis such as the one affecting Rohingya people in Myanmar occur, the role of both international and local media is essential. One of the factors to be taken into account is the lack of access to the people and areas affected. Also political pressures and state of freedom of expression in Myanmar play a big role when it comes to the reporting of local media.

In August Rohingya militant group ARSA attacked several police posts and ever since then, Myanmar’s army has targeted the Rohingya community in Myanmar. According to Amnesty International, “more than 530,000 Rohingya men, women and children have fled northern Rakhine State in terror in a matter of weeks amid the Myanmar security forces’ targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning.” Over 1000 people have been killed in the conflict thus far. The Rohingya Muslim community has endured hardship from the Myanmar government for years; the government has denied the ethnic group citizenship and they often face discrimination from the majority-Buddhist country. According to Amnesty International, they are “one of the most persecuted minorities in the world”. What is happening now has been declared as ethnic cleansing by the United Nations.

In times of ethnic conflicts, the media is essential in communicating to the world what is happening. However, many organisations claim that the Myanmar’s government has made it extremely hard for journalists to access Rakhine and report on the Rohingya crisis. In fact, authorities have blocked all media access to Rakhine and the only way journalists can visit the area is through guided tours. It has only been in recent weeks that in-depth reports have been published on the crisis, as refugees have settled in camps in bordering Bangladesh and are able to tell their stories.

Amnesty International published a detailed report titled “My World is Finished” which details the crimes against humanity endured by the Rohingya people in Myanmar, including a variety of first-hand accounts. Amnesty International also published a report called “Caged Without a Roof”, which looks at the treatments of Rohingya people in Myanmar over the past several years, concluding that the treatment amounts to apartheid. Save the Children published their own report called “Horrors I Will Never Forget” focusing on the children fallen victim to the Rohingya crisis and the horrors they have witnessed.

Some international newspapers have also covered the Rohinya crisis in depth. Jeffrey Gettleman from the New York Times did an interview with a Rohingya refugee whose baby was thrown in a fire by Myanmar government soldiers. The Independent’s Will Worley covered the stories of several Rohingya children and their terrible experiences. Kym Blechynden writes for ABC News about her experience working as a Red Cross volunteer in one of the refugee camps in Bangladesh. “Between us, we have more than 35 years’ experience working in emergency response – these are still the worst conditions any of us have seen,” Blechynden wrote.

What is missing in the media coverage is a fair, acurate and balanced reporting by the local media. One case that can be looked at is an online news portal “The Irrawaddy” that states that it has “a mission to cover the news in Burma/Myanmar and Southeast Asia accurately and impartially.” The publication obtained $150,000 to help continue developing a free media platform in Myanmar. However, some of The Irrawaddy’s coverage of the Rohingya crisis is questionable.

For instance, most of the its reporting has been largely focised on ARSA, the Rohingya militant group who attacked police posts in August. In an article published in October, they state: “ARSA created the crisis now facing Myanmar, Rohingya refugees, and the international community.” Several other articles on the issue heavily focus on ARSA and the violence instigated by the group as being the sole reason for the current Rohingya crisis. This is troublesome reporting; while ARSA of course should be reported on, and their role in the current crisis not overlooked, the atrocities performed by the Myanmar army must not be overshadowed by this. Bustle reports that several former employees of The Irrawaddy have claimed that the publication “has become a parrot for the Burmese government and the anti-Rohingya.”

When it comes to press freedom, Myanmar ranks 131 out of 180. Reporters without borders comment on the state of the media, and how the local media handles issues related to the Rohingya community: “The authorities continue to exert pressure on the media and even intervene directly to get editorial policies changed. Widespread racist attitudes towards the Rohingya people restrict free and independent coverage of the humanitarian crisis in Arakan state.” It is clear that a lot of progress still needs to happen in Myanmar in terms of fair and reliable reporting. In terms of the Rohingya crisis, it is very hard to distinguish between genuine and biased reports coming from Myanmar media agencies.

There are now over 600,000 displaced Rohingya people in Bangladesh. There are repatriation talks taking place between Myanmar and Bangladesh, which could mean that large groups of the Rohingya community move back to Myanmar. This brings up a whole new set of issues and questions. That is why the media need to provide fact-based and fair reporting on the Rohingya crisis.