Peer reviewed analysis from world leading experts

The problems of reporting on the Rohingya crisis

Reading Time: 5 mins
A Rohingya woman speak to media in Maung Na Ma village, northern Rakhine, Myanmar, 13 July 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Simon Lewis).

In Brief

The past few months in Rakhine State have shone a light on the difficulties that journalists face when reporting from Myanmar’s fringe regions. But this struggle is not particularly new — reporters have been pressed ever since the violence began both to protect themselves and to ensure that their reporting reflects reality for those on the ground.


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Changes the world over in foreign news production during the last few decades have reduced the resources available for foreign coverage and investigative reporting, often reinforcing dominant narratives of ‘us versus them’ rather than unearthing the complexity of a situation. Since the break out of communal violence in Myanmar between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims in 2012, stories have exhibited this reductionism.

With the increasing pressure to maximise profits and cut costs, foreign bureaus and locally-based foreign correspondents have increasingly relied on local people in faraway places. But this has occurred without a corresponding increase in attention to the role of these key local players in the process. These local assistants, generally known as ‘fixers’, are routinely hired by foreign correspondents or by ‘parachute journalists’ who fly in for short periods, report on the situation and then move on to their next assignment. In Rakhine State, hiring fixers to help with logistics and translation has become a necessary part of most reporters’ production process — including for those who are based in Myanmar’s cities but do not speak the relevant local languages.

In the rare academic work that does focus on these ‘fixers’, there is a tendency to question their trustworthiness and ability to keep personal perspectives from influencing either the process or the foreign correspondent. But these accounts rarely question the trustworthiness of the correspondents in working with fixers, even though fixers generally take greater risks and receive fewer benefits in the process, while the actions of foreign reporters can put local people at risk.

But new research has begun to argue that much of the fixers’ work is editorial and creative in nature: it involves key ‘people’ skills in navigating the local cultural terrain, finding key sources and translating. Fixers, or more accurately ‘local producers,’ often have significant input into a story but do not appear in the by-lines. This is most often because of the dangers they face if they are recognised — in situations as divisive as that of Rakhine State, local people can often brand these local producers as traitors for working with and for outsiders. Authorities work to intimidate them rather than the foreign correspondents, whose intimidation could attract unwanted international attention.

But local producers and others in the community inevitably influence the story, so the news production process tends to walk a well-trodden path — one that takes journalists to the same interviewees and the same sites, all of which serve to reinforce dominant accounts of the situation.

In Rakhine State — due mainly to the small pool of local producers — many journalists tend to focus on the victimhood of the Rohingya, making invisible their agency and their violence when it does occur. While recent attacks by the newly formed Rohingya insurgent group, the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army (ARSA), have received a lot of attention, the coverage since 2012 has not highlighted violence by the Rohingya. Especially prior to ARSA’s emergence, the focus on extreme nationalist Rakhine Buddhists reinforced inaccurate stereotypes of all Rakhine Buddhists as extremely nationalist. The coverage that results serves to intimidate the moderate Rakhine community, which often translates into a fear of speaking out. The common framing of the Rohingya crisis as a security issue in the Myanmar media also reinforces the already divisive binary that pits Rakhine against Rohingya, Buddhist against Muslim. This does little to promote conflict resolution.

To ensure effective reporting on such sensitive issues, Myanmar’s media face a big challenge: promoting good quality, investigative reporting that is backed by adequate resources so that correspondents can avoid the well-trodden paths forged by reporters with few resources and little time. This will require alternatives to profit-focussed media and a genuine commitment to independent public service media.

In addition, while the Myanmar government has blamed the international media for inaccurate reporting on the Rakhine situation, they have at the same time limited reporters’ access to the primary sources necessary to produce more accurate in-depth coverage. Issues of access to key sites and sources, visa policies, the requirement that all visitors report their identities to hotels as well as restrictions on who reporters can hire as assistants all affect the ability of journalists to deliver quality reporting on the local situation. Improvements in the standardisation of government policies and regulations would help journalists to navigate the local scene.

Most reporters in Rakhine State are afraid to report on the situation. Those reporting are usually either from Yangon or abroad — coverage is not produced by those closest to the situation. Protection and recognition for the local people who are part of the news production team would help increase the perspectives of local people most affected by the situation.

To more fairly distribute the benefits of teamwork in foreign news production and increase transparency, news organisations could formally recognise the work of local contributors, perhaps through pseudonyms or at least through references to their role, if not to a name. This might empower ‘fixers’ to push for more complex stories, to include compelling reflections on people’s daily lives and their struggles to survive that go beyond the sensationalist representations of crisis and misery.

Lisa Brooten is Associate Professor at Southern Illinois University.

Yola Verbruggen is a journalist based in London.

3 responses to “The problems of reporting on the Rohingya crisis”

  1. This article fails to acknowledge the cultural bias of the parachute journalist who hires the fixers to provide him/her quotes that fit into his biased narrative often in favour of the ‘victimised minority’ in an Asian country. Thus they fall prey to organised syndicates who make a killing by human trafficking and other criminal actitivities … be it the Tamils in Sri Lanka or Rohinyas in Myanmar. we cannot accept that the Western journalist is always objective … it is a subjective matter. Objectivity is a western mythodology.

  2. Kal Sen you make very valid points which we also make in the full research article on which this shorter piece is based. I invite you to read the longer piece and thank you for these important observations.

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