Unkind Cut

How a media fixation on sexual violence and exploitation harmed the Rohingya

Illustrations by
01 February 2020
Early on, extensive coverage of the sexual violence against Rohingya women drove home that it was a mainstay of the campaign to drive the community out of Myanmar. But as the Rohingya story developed, the journalistic value of retelling the worst of the atrocities declined.
Early on, extensive coverage of the sexual violence against Rohingya women drove home that it was a mainstay of the campaign to drive the community out of Myanmar. But as the Rohingya story developed, the journalistic value of retelling the worst of the atrocities declined.

THE USUAL BASE for international journalists covering the Rohingya crisis is a hotel by the beach in Cox’s Bazar, a Bangladeshi resort town some sixty kilometres north of the vast refugee camps at Kutupalong and Balukhali. Every morning, they pile into SUVs, vans or pickup trucks, and join the stream of traffic taking aid workers, human-rights experts and other out-of-towners southwards. The typical media team bound for the camps includes a driver, a reporter, a photographer, sometimes a cameraman or two, and, almost always, a local journalist as an assistant. The local journalists—“fixers” in the lingo of the international media—are typically possessed of multiple talents. Conversant in English, Bangla, and, preferably, the Rohingya language as well, they serve as translators and guides, manage logistics and dispense security advice. They must be savvy and well-networked enough to arrange any required permissions, to identify relevant sources, to persuade refugees to trust complete strangers with the details of their present and past. Beyond that, they must be bridges across cultural divides—able to decipher and explain clashing manners and contexts, to know just which words to use, and which never to utter, when translating questions and answers. These are the unsung heroes of international journalism, essential to the work of foreign correspondents, but too often not credited and badly paid.

I first visited Cox’s Bazar and started speaking with local journalists while reporting for The Hindu in mid 2018. At the time, it had been less than a year since August 2017, when targeted looting, killing and rape by military and militia forces in nearby Myanmar sparked a mass exodus of Rohingya that filled the camps to overflowing. Global interest in the Rohingya was still at a peak, helped by a flood of reporting from the camps on their expulsion and escape, and on their new predicament as refugees. When I returned late that year, and again in August 2019 to report for a host of international publications, the world’s interest was somewhat waning, though the international media continued to report from the camps in a regular stream. Between trips, and from the very start of the exodus, I followed the coverage closely as the Rohingya crisis became one of the most widely reported humanitarian stories of the last decade. Already on my first trip, amid the expansive reporting up to that point, it was hard to miss a recurring fixation on one theme in particular.

In 2018, I asked three established local journalists in Cox’s Bazar about the kinds of stories they were most often approached to work on. Between them, the three had worked with over a hundred media organisations and freelance journalists since the Rohingya exodus began. All three of them, separately, took less than a second to give me the same answer: stories on sexual violence.

Vidya Krishnan is a writer and journalist. Her first book, Phantom Plague: The Untold Story of How Tuberculosis Shaped our History, will be published by PublicAffairs in 2021.

Keywords: Sexual violence Rohingya Myanmar Bangladesh Cox's Bazar
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