As a Bangladeshi with a keen interest in the Rohingya issue, I frequently scan the Internet to get a sense of how the foreign media is treating the evolving Rohingya crisis as we approach the monsoon season. When the Rohingyas started fleeing Myanmar last August, the international community, particularly the Western press, mobilised quickly around the Rohingya cause. From September to December, newspapers, magazines, online media, and social media ran countless features on the humanitarian dimensions, the harsh treatment meted out by Myanmar, the immediate needs of the refugees, and their right to return. However, more than seven months have passed and there has been very little or no progress on their repatriation. How is the international media processing the unresolved crisis as we enter its eighth month?
During the lifecycle of a crisis, media coverage evolves through different phases. As the Rohingya crisis reaches a mature phase, the media has kept the spotlight shining on the plight of the Rohingyas huddled up in their tiny “enclaves” month after month, and any casual reader will not miss the point. However, the frequency of these stories has somewhat declined, even though the situation on the ground has not gotten any better. Most reports note that notwithstanding the best efforts of the government of Bangladesh and the aid groups, the refugee camps are “bursting at the seams”. While the world media has occasionally returned to this theme, it has failed to recognise the burden of the crisis and give enough credit to Bangladesh and its administration for managing one of the biggest mass exoduses from one country to another with fortitude and compassion. It is high time for the world media to use its influence to: a) raise global awareness once again, and b) awaken the world community from its stupor on this issue. Why? We must recognise that a quick and fair resolution of the multipronged crisis depends on the active engagement of the international community. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the international media plays a big role in this respect. “Out of sight and out of mind” goes the old saying, and if the Rohingya crisis slides into the anteroom of the global stage and world media forgets about it, the crisis is likely to linger longer. With that state of mind, I regularly scan news media sites for a “state of the crisis” updates.
I initiated my quest by carrying out a Google search on terms such as: Annan Report; genocide in Myanmar; Rohingya repatriation; Bangladesh's hospitality; “Aung San Suu Kyi+Rohingya”, and “genocide in Rohingya”—and filtered them to identify the genre of the source: newspaper, magazine, website, online news media, and social media. The first thing I noticed, aside from a drop in the number of reports, is that the international discourse has now shifted from stories of atrocities committed by the armed forces in Myanmar and the refugees' gruelling journey from Rakhine to Bangladesh to conditions in the camps and the repatriation framework. In the initial months, there was some uncertainty about the economic, political, and military fallout from the crisis. Currently, there is a sense of relief that the risk of an armed encounter between the two countries is almost zero, although the activities of the Myanmar military in Rakhine have raised some eyebrows. Amnesty International in mid-March shed light on this issue in its report entitled “Myanmar: Military land grab as security forces build bases on torched Rohingya villages,” while BBC's report on March 1 had the headline, “Rohingya crisis: Military build-up on Myanmar border with Bangladesh.” However, with each passing month, the interest of journalists oscillates, from atrocities committed and accountability to living conditions in the camps and the future of the refugees. Most of the stories are similar to the one in The Diplomat, a magazine focusing on South-East Asian countries. The feature, “The Rohingya in Bangladesh: Living in Limbo,” provides a very detailed account of life in exile.
Media coverage during the early months focused on the historical origin of the conflict in Myanmar, the brutality perpetrated by the armed forces and locals (the “genocide” question), the magnitude of the humanitarian needs, and the mechanisms for a peaceful resolution. Thanks to the efforts of all stakeholders involved, there is now a greater global awareness as regards each of these areas. However, since the beginning of this year, media interest has flagged partly due to “fake news” about the repatriation programme negotiated by Bangladesh and Myanmar, and partly due to the peaceful transition to a “steady state” status in which diplomacy coupled with adequate humanitarian aid appear to have prevented the crisis from getting worse. Some western newspapers particularly The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal in the US, The Globe and Mail in Canada, The Guardian in the UK, and a few newspapers in Australia continue to run reports from their correspondents on life in the camps, the negotiations, and the prospects for repatriation.
Recent developments that grabbed the attention most are Facebook's role in the crisis, the unanimous verdict by international diplomats on Myanmar's “lack of preparedness”, and the powerlessness of UN Security Council. The statement last month by Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, that conditions in Myanmar are “not yet conducive” for the Rohingyas to return voluntarily generated modest interest. The negative assessment by Ursula Mueller, assistant secretary general for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, following her visit to Myanmar, also got some press.
Against this backdrop, two recent events and three statements have reignited interest in the festering crisis. The first event happened in early April when the US Senate grilled Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg on the role played by hate messages propagated by the social media during the months before and after the Myanmar campaign of “ethnic cleansing” started. The global media gave prominent coverage to a statement by US Senator Patrick Leahy, who reminded Zuckerberg that, “Recently, UN investigators blamed Facebook for playing a role in inciting the possible genocide in Myanmar, and there has been genocide there.” The other event is the resignation of Bill Richardson, former US ambassador to the UN, from an international advisory board on Myanmar's Rakhine state, calling the effort a “whitewash”. He added, “I was taken aback by the vigour with which the media, the United Nations, human rights groups, and in general the international community were disparaged.”
The western media prominently displayed statements by politicians who lent their voice to the Rohingya cause recently, including the president of the Philippines, US defence secretary, and some US senators. A few days ago, Senator John McCain and film star Angelina Jolie wrote on the opinion page of The New York Times entitled, “America Should Lead in Saving the Rohingya.”
Is the tide gradually turning in favour of the Rohingyas' point of view? Not clear! Some sections of the press are also re-examining their earlier reporting on the crisis. The New York Times ran a story in February reflecting a sense of unease entitled, “The Rohingya Suffer Real Horrors. So Why Are Some of Their Stories Untrue?” However, the recent Pulitzer prize awarded to Reuters for photography sends a positive signal that the world still has an appetite for authentic media coverage on the Rohingya.
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and Senior Research Fellow at International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think tank based in Boston.