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HomeOpinionThe Rohingya and the ethical blindspot of international media

The Rohingya and the ethical blindspot of international media

Guest contributor

Shafiur Rahman

In recent years, the Rohingya have been a focal point in discussions about displacement, humanitarian crises, and the rights of refugees. The world has learned a lot about their harrowing experiences primarily through visuals – photos and videos that convey the depth of their struggles. 

However, the production and usage of this kind of documentary information is itself fraught with issues. Intellectual property rights (IPR) have surfaced as a new arena of contention, challenging the perception of fair play in media outlets, even those with esteemed reputations. The issues expand beyond basic human rights, delving into the rights and ethics surrounding the very media that showcases their plight.

While the Rohingya refugees’ experiences are brought to light through various forms of media, there remains a concerning undervaluation of their own journalistic contributions, particularly in photojournalism. The poignant works by these refugee journalists rarely find acknowledgment, appreciation, or a platform, leading to their systematic marginalization in many ways: from unauthorized usage and denied credits to low or no compensation and of course, outright exclusion from mainstream photojournalism.

Compounding this problem is the narrow lens through which major news entities view these refugees. Often relegated to roles of stringers, or fixers, during high-intensity events such as fires, floods, ship disasters, and demonstrations, the deeper, day-to-day narratives of the Rohingya remain untapped. 

This superficial engagement deprives the world of a comprehensive understanding of the Rohingya situation and further marginalizes their voices in global media narratives. Disturbingly, there are evident double standards at play. While media entities might refrain from misusing the works of mainstream photographers, images taken by Rohingya photographers are frequently misappropriated without due credit or compensation. This not only reinforces their exclusion but also perpetuates a skewed representation in the media.

The misappropriation of the Rohingya’s contributions isn’t an isolated incident confined to lesser-known media entities. Alarmingly, this trend of pilfering and misuse is rampant even among global media giants, including reputable names such as Anadolu, Getty Images, Reuters, and AFP. 

These institutions, heralded as bastions of journalistic integrity and ethics, have been implicated in several instances where they’ve sidestepped established protocols, overlooking the intellectual property rights of the very refugees whose stories they seek to tell.

It’s a twisted irony that while these media houses often play pivotal roles in shining light on the Rohingya crisis, they simultaneously undermine the refugees’ rights by leveraging their work without due acknowledgment or fair compensation. 

Such actions not only strip these refugee journalists of their rightful claims and potential livelihoods but also send a distressing message about the commodification of their experiences. By exploiting the very voices they purport to amplify, these media giants reinforce the perception of the Rohingya as subjects to be observed rather than active participants with agency in their narratives.

The challenges faced by the Rohingya in media representation are symptomatic of a broader issue in today’s media landscape. In an era where content is voraciously consumed and disseminated at lightning speed, safeguarding the rights of marginalized creators becomes all the more critical.

These cases serve as stark reminders that even in the domain of humanitarian journalism, where empathy should be at the forefront, market-driven practices and competitive pressures can often overshadow core ethical tenets.

Building on these challenges, the cripplingly restrictive employment landscape for Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh further compounds the difficulties faced by them in the realm of media, and more broadly across various sectors. Bangladesh, which hosts a significant number of Rohingya refugees, has regulations that end up exacerbating the very vulnerabilities they intend to address.

Guided by directives set by the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) in tandem with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Rohingya individuals are cornered into roles strictly labeled as ‘volunteer.’ 

This means, irrespective of the job’s intricacies or hours invested, a Rohingya can only be officially recognised as a “volunteer.” Such regulations impose glaring disparities in employment equity, creating a stark contrast between Rohingya workers and their local Bangladeshi counterparts.

Only one or two humanitarian organizations operating in the region, aiming to navigate these bureaucratic intricacies, resort to innovative methods to ensure the Rohingya receive more than just symbolic compensation. For instance, they implement strategies like disbursing per diem and other allowances. 

While these makeshift solutions offer some relief, they don’t bridge the gaping chasm of employment equity. An audit system exists, vigilantly ensuring these organizations stay within the regulatory boundaries, making the already complex situation even more intricate.

The system’s nuances have incited internal deliberations among non-governmental organizations (NGOs). A primary concern is the palpable wage discrepancy originating from an individual’s ethnic identity — a Rohingya worker’s compensation pales in comparison to a Bangladeshi contractor or an international photographer’s for that matter. Though certain organizations, less tethered to U.N. funding, can push these boundaries slightly, they remain cautious, aiming to avoid unwanted scrutiny.

In summary, while financial costs are considerably lower when hiring Rohingya due to the “volunteer” status, the complexities around regulations, internal discussions, ethics, audits, and potential scrutiny make organizations unable or reluctant to do so. 

They often opt for non-Rohingya photographers, even at a higher cost, designating them as “comms officers,” or resort to foreign photographers who typically command significantly higher fees. This systemic blockage is symptomatic of the broader challenges faced by Rohingya photographers in their pursuit of equitable recognition and compensation in the media landscape

Such systemic injustices are not just restricted to the realm of employment but also manifest in more direct ways in the media world. The experience of Mohammed Jamal  (a U.N. registered Rohingya refugee) with copyright infringement and the subsequent dismissive attitude he encountered offers a stark insight into these challenges. 

When his image (a photo of a photo) was used without his consent, Jamal sought acknowledgment from Nick March, the assistant editor-in-chief of The National. In an ironic twist, March, in an email meant for an internal colleague, offhandedly dismissed Jamal’s valid concerns as him merely “trying his luck.” Such casual disregard speaks volumes about the deeply entrenched attitudes of some in the media, where the intellectual property rights of marginalized people, such as the Rohingya, are viewed as mere inconveniences rather than sacrosanct.

In his emails, Jamal delineated his rights and the boundaries that had been overstepped. He rightly highlighted that even if a photograph wasn’t directly sold, its mere presence on a revenue-generating platform constitutes commercial use. The widely-held idea that a simple apology and image removal suffice as redress for copyright infringement is emblematic of a system ripe for exploitation. As Jamal succinctly put it, this isn’t about “trying his luck” but rather about standing up for one’s rights and the rights of countless creators whose works are appropriated without due permission or compensation.

As media consumption grows exponentially in the digital age, it’s imperative to acknowledge and rectify such imbalances. The mainstream media, with its vast reach and influence, has a responsibility to not only narrate but to uphold the rights of those they cover. Jamal’s story serves as a clarion call for change, urging entities, both big and small, to recognise, respect, and remunerate the rightful creators, irrespective of their backgrounds or circumstances. After all, journalism’s integrity rests not just on the stories it tells but on the ethics it practices.

Shafiur Rahman is a journalist and documentary filmmaker currently covering Rohingya issues. He is the organizer of the Rohingya Photography Competition.

DVB publishes a diversity of opinions that does not reflect DVB editorial policy. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our stories: [email protected]


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