The minefield of reporting the Rohingya
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The minefield of reporting the Rohingya

A journalist takes photos of a burning house at a village in Rakhine state in September last year. As Rakhine is off-limits, most media stories from there are done as part of tours set by the state. EPA
A journalist takes photos of a burning house at a village in Rakhine state in September last year. As Rakhine is off-limits, most media stories from there are done as part of tours set by the state. EPA

When the Myanmar Journalism Institute held a discussion on the Rohingya crisis, it had to be an "invitation only" event instead of a public one. In Myanmar media, it has become mainstream to avoid using the word Rohingya and keep some distance from a topic that is too sensitive and too risky for the political and financial survival of news outlets.

In short, storytelling around the Rohingya, whose mass exodus from Myanmar's northern Rakhine state after August 2017 has led to Southeast Asia's biggest humanitarian crisis, has become a minefield.

The Rohingya issue has become tricky news territory, throwing challenges to those who produce news about it as well as those who consume it, both inside and outside the country.

"Reporting on the Rakhine crisis is highly sensitive and heavy pressure on your shoulders," said Sein Win, training director of the institute. "The government pressured local media and journalists to keep away from the international narrative that linked it to ethnic cleansing and genocide.

"Media outlets are staying away from this topic as much as they can, or self-censorship [is] in place."

The government is instructing media outlets to use the term "Bengali", which labels the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Rakhine, as undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, said Sein Win.

"The media know the limits of what we can write and what we can't," said Aung Shin, editor of the Myanmar edition of the Myanmar Times. "Definitely any audience can get angry or dislike or [be] unhappy [with stories]."

"We have to be extremely careful in every step of reporting and publishing," he said in an email interview. "Everyone has a fear not only of government or Tatmadaw [Myanmar's military]. The personal difficulty involves fear, taking care of your security. The professional challenge is doing qualified, comprehensive, fair and strong reporting."

This minefield of reportage is also littered with challenges from Myanmar's society, where the "othering" of the Rohingya has occurred over decades and sustains the deep, common hostility toward them even amid rights violations like arson, killings and rape.

This view underlies suspicion towards the outside, especially the Western world. It means not only are there sectors in the media that willingly follow the state's line, but also critical reporting can become risky when deemed too sympathetic to the Rohingya.


"Very few" journalists in Myanmar dare to write critical, professionally done stories on the issue, said Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Myanmar. "The main problem here is actually public opinion in Myanmar. It is not just a 'state narrative' [against the Rohingya]."

"Reporters who follow the government narrative were praised, but the ones who defied the government and practised professional journalism had a hard time," Sein Win said. "You should expect words like 'traitor', 'betrayal', 'puppets of Western [nations]', 'beggar of donors', and 'Muslim suckers' as part of the propaganda war on Facebook when you report with balance and in a professional way."

Local media follow the directive to use "Bengali". Some sites that run foreign wire material use "Rohingya" in those stories, but not in their own copy. Others use "Bengali" and put "Rohingya" in brackets to keep to a degree of journalistic standards, as Burma News International's Zin Linn explains.

"Very few media outlets have editorial guidelines in general. Basically there is no effort to revisit the words for them," Sein Win said. "Local reporting on the Rakhine crisis is one-sided and very biased."

All these are quite a task for a media community that is still new to freer reporting spaces -- decades-long censorship only ended in 2012 -- and a society still in transition from a time when the state and military were all-powerful.

The scarce avenues for first-hand reporting, as Rakhine is off-limits, is the first handicap in storytelling. Most stories from there are done as part of tours set by the state, or are based on officials' statements.

"We don't have a choice, so we sign up," said a veteran foreign photojournalist who was based in Myanmar. "It takes very experienced foreign and Burmese journalists to be able to see through the maze of deception when you participate in these visits." Visits are too short for in-depth work and photo opportunities involve burned debris of villages, he said.

The obvious origin of more stories has been the refugee camps in Bangladesh. There too, reporting about the nearly 700,000 mainly Rohingya people who fled Myanmar over the last eight months poses challenges in verification and ensuring accuracy. They live in the world's most densely populated refugee settlement, and are unlikely to be allowed back to Myanmar.


Conflicts and survival needs make people desperate. To get aid or better chances at resettlement, refugees may invent or twist their accounts, as a February report in The New York Times found.

"Within an hour, I had a notebook filled with the kind of quotes that pull at heartstrings. Little of it was true," its journalist, Hannah Beech, wrote in a story from Leda, Bangladesh.

"In any refugee camp, tragedy is commodified.… To compete for relief supplies distributed by aid groups, refugees learn to deploy women with infants in their arms. Crying babies get pushed to the front of the line. Such strategies are a natural survival tactic. Who wouldn't do the same to feed a family?"

Mr Lintner recalls reading a news item about a 10-year-old who said she had to "swim for two hours in a river". "Most 10-year-olds in our part of the world cannot swim. Boys yes, but girls are too shy for that.

"Inaccurate and uninformed reporting by the Western media -- and even some international human rights organisations -- has been counterproductive and contributed to the rise of xenophobic nationalism in Myanmar," he said.

Some facts have been left behind at times. While most refugees are Rohingya, not all are. There are Hindus and other groups from Rakhine, but the UN says it does not have a breakdown of the refugees' composition.

The Rohingya are a Muslim community that speaks a Chittagongian dialect of Bengali, the same one spoken on Bangladesh's side of the border, including by Hindus.

These Hindus and those in Rakhine, however, are not Rohingya. There are no "Hindu Rohingya", but an October 2017 article by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees mentions Hindus who "self-identify as Rohingya". Myanmar is also home to many more Muslims who are not Rohingyas.

The plight of the Rohingyas, living in Myanmar for a long time and denied citizenship, has been of concern for decades. There have been several waves of departures to Bangladesh or elsewhere, but the 2017 one was the biggest. Before that, 213,000 refugees were already in the Bangladesh camps.

Mr Lintner suggests it is time to widen coverage of the Rohingya story and dig into the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (Arsa), responsible for the August 2017 attacks against police outposts in Rakhine that triggered the military operation from which many Rohingya fled. Its presence is also being watched by a Southeast Asia worried about terrorism.

Based in Saudi Arabia and led by a Karachi-born man of Rohingya parentage, Arsa's emergence some five years ago brought a foreign, Islamic militant angle into the tense equation. Radical Rohingya using maps showing all of Rakhine as theirs has upset Rakhine Buddhists.

"Both sides [the Myanmar state and pro-Rohingya lobby] are rewriting history," said Mr Lintner.

In this shrunken space for public discussion around the Rohingya crisis, the pitfalls in reporting lie in the lack of professionalism in parts of local media, fake news, and "falling into the trap of hardliners on both sides" for those reporting inside and outside Myanmar, said Sein Win.

"Without access to information, foreign journalists can cover only one side of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh and there is a risk of Arsa exploitation," he said.

Johanna Son, Bangkok-based editor of the Reporting Asean programme, follows Southeast Asian issues.

Johanna Son

Founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series

Johanna Son is founder/editor of the Reporting ASEAN series.


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