WMC Women Under Siege

What is the media’s role in covering mass atrocities?

Since August 25, more than half a million Rohingya Muslims have fled across the border from Burma, a majority Buddhist state, into neighboring Bangladesh. Using satellite imagery, photographs, and video, Amnesty International has found evidence of a scorched-earth campaign across northern Rakhine State.  

The abuses committed by the Burmese security forces against the Rohingya population since August fulfill the requisite elements of crimes against humanity under international law, according to Human Rights Watch. The mass exodus of the Rohingya people continues unabated, with accounts of systemic gender-based violence, murder, and forced evacuation by security forces, which are burning down entire villages. On November 16, HRW called the rape of women “widespread.”  

“Make no mistake: This is ethnic cleansing,” Tirana Hassan, crisis response director of Amnesty International, said in a September press release.  

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But while the scale of violence against the Rohingya appears unprecedented, the United Nations has long considered the minority group to be one of the world’s most persecuted minorities. For decades, the group has endured chronic discrimination, including violence, restrictions on freedom of movement—what Nay San Lwin, a Rohingya activist, said in an interview is akin to an open-air prison—and renunciation of citizenship, making the Rohingya the world’s largest stateless group, according to the International Rescue Committee. So why has the media remained relatively silent until this new crisis, and what does that mean for those who are suffering?  

While the Rohingya’s realities have received sporadic attention over the last number of decades, when it comes to Burma, the mainstream media and the international community have largely focused elsewhere: on the country’s democratic transition and political fragility. But, since August, virtually every foreign news outlet has covered the crisis, and some have acknowledged the scale of violence as amounting to ethnic cleansing. Yet, before long, the cameras will inevitably go home, and the media will focus on another breaking story. The consequences of this business model, according to media and human rights experts, cannot be overstated.  

While there is a consensus in journalism that documenting human rights atrocities is crucial, what is undeniable is that the operational structure of today’s media is fatally flawed if it wants to play a role in the prevention of mass atrocities.  

The effect of media fatigue on a crisis like what is happening to the Rohingya can be misinformation, a lack of incentive for the international community to respond to ongoing atrocities, and opening up space for retaliation or harm against victims or vulnerable groups on which the media reported—and then left behind. Newsrooms do not have the bandwidth to cover every situation of political tension or repression, and massive cuts in foreign bureaus and full-time correspondents inevitably mean that unfolding crises cannot be monitored in real-time. And while it’s not technically the media’s job to ensure protection of the vulnerable people in its stories, moving on can mean reprisals or even death, as NGOs and others remain less informed than they once were about a particular area or personal situation.  

‘A train crash in slow motion’

Each year, fewer resources are devoted to covering international affairs that are not the “big” stories or stories du jour, Allan Thompson wrote in a book he edited called The Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Thompson is a professor of journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa, and a columnist at the Toronto Star. Yet devoting some reporting to what happens after an acute crisis ends can affect the wellbeing and future of a struggling people or country.  

“It’s not sexy, but reporting on post-conflict situations and what happens once the cameras go away goes a long way to prevent another situation,” said Kimberly Abbott, who worked for the International Crisis Group for nine years to prevent and resolve conflict situations, and now works at the Washington-based NGO World Learning.  

The Rohingya have endured persecution since the 1960s. The violence increased in the 1980s and has been a constant since, according to Andrea Gittleman, program manager for the prevention of genocide at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. But, for many years, coverage focused almost exclusively on political prisoners, according to Gittleman. Since 2010, with the democratic transition, there was an outpouring of foreign aid and the international community had a vested interest in branding the country as a success, said Akila Radhakrishnan, vice president and legal director of the New York-based Global Justice Center. Consequently, stories of continued human rights abuses and roadblocks to democratic transition have not been front and center, said Radhakrishnan. Also, something “still happening” does not tend to sell newspapers.  

Human Rights Watch began documenting incidents of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity against the Rohingya population as early as 2012 and through 2016. In 2015, Desmond Tutu cautioned that the government of Burma was absolving itself of responsibility for the violence against the Rohingya population as “communal violence.” But, he said, “This is a deliberately false narrative to camouflage the slow genocide against the Rohingya people.”  

According to experts who work in the region, this simmering crisis was like watching a train crash in slow motion.  

One expert also noted that while the international media may have been able to play a role in preventing the crisis by covering intercommunal conflict, statelessness, and human rights violations between 2012 and 2016 (and even before that), the reactionary coverage, once the crisis had already erupted this August, may, in fact, be perpetuating instability involuntarily.  

“The media has been a conflict-driver,” argued Gabrielle Aron, an independent consultant and analyst with expertise on the conflict in Rakhine State. “Both domestic and international media has been an obstacle to prevention of further atrocities. It’s really closed off pathways for constructive engagements with the government and military.” Aron says the local culture prides itself on “saving face,” so the naming-and-shaming approach is received as antagonistic—and has shrunk the influence of international actors and sealed inroads for prevention of further atrocities.  

Lessons not learned

Following the genocide in Rwanda and conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, there was much reflection on the role of both domestic and international media. As journalists, we bear a momentous responsibility to convey accurate information to the public—our reporting has the power to amplify violence or aid in its prevention.  

As is now widely accepted, before the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which Hutus slaughtered some 800,000 Tutsis in less than 100 days, several warning signs went ignored. Roméo Dallaire, the then-force commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, warned the UN about the impending massacre, yet the international community denied his pleas for intervention. In 1993, a UN special rapporteur similarly cautioned that all the signs of potential genocide were present in Rwanda at the time.

In Rwanda, journalists used local media as a weapon to provoke genocide and sexual attacks against Tutsi women. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda—set up after the war—found three journalists (including one man, Georges Omar Ruiggiu, of Belgian and Italian nationality) guilty of genocide, incitement to commit genocide, and crimes against humanity.  

Similarly, the international media was accused of getting the story terribly wrong in the beginning: clichéd and dismissive reports about “ethnic warfare,” “chaos,” and “tribal violence” dominated the coverage. In a 2000 International Press Institute report, an excerpt from a 2014 book on the Limits of Humanitarian Intervention in Rwanda by Alan J. Kuperman, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas at Austin, said: “Western media blame the international community for not intervening quickly, but the media must share blame for not immediately recognizing the extent of the carnage and mobilizing world attention to it.”  

Anne-Marie Huby, executive director of Médecins Sans Frontières in the mid-1990s said, “The media presence changed the perception of the Rwandan crisis in a very damaging way.”  

Mike Dottridge, who worked for Amnesty International at the time, wrote in Thompson’s book that before 1994, in the years leading up to the genocide, which involved political repression and human rights abuses, Rwanda received almost no attention. This reality, in his view, was one of the causes of inaction during the genocide, for which journalists bear partial blame.  

If we heed the lessons from the 1990s, it’s clear that if the public is not engaged and informed, there is little incentive for leaders to respond. Following the Rwandan genocide, Thompson advanced a paradigm for journalists called the “responsibility to report”: to cover people, places, and events that news organizations have excluded from their agenda. “Rather than just covering wars, the media should pay more attention before a conflict erupts and after the fact, examine efforts at conflict resolution and ways the news media could actually support reconciliation and peace.”  

Although it has been more than 20 years since the calamitous failure of the media and the international community to address the scale of atrocities in Rwanda adequately, history, unfortunately, does repeat itself. And such as-yet unheeded lessons for the media have particular resonance today, in the tragedy unfolding in Burma and elsewhere.




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