Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
April 20, 2018, 9:08 a.m.
Reporting & Production

R Vision, a digital news outlet by and for Rohingya people, aims to shed light on crisis

R Vision is run entirely by an ethnic Rohingya staff of about 25 and uses local citizen journalists to get news out from areas where media is denied access.

As the Rohingya humanitarian crisis branching out from Myanmar reaches ever lower lows, it can be difficult to know what’s really happening. A media blackout in the region and harsh government press regulations, which include arresting journalists, have severely undermined the media’s ability to be a witness to the violence. (AP correspondent Esther Htusan, a Pulitzer Prize winner and ethnic Kachin from northern Myanmar, was forced to leave the country in November after death threats and unidentified men following her home.)

One digital outlet has managed to find a way through this fog to report on the day-to-day horrors currently taking place in Rakhine State, where most Rohingya have lived for generations, as well as among Rohingya refugee communities in Bangladesh and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It’s run entirely by an ethnic Rohingya staff of around 25, on site.

In a downtown district of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, behind a hotel, a stairway just off a parking garage leads to an unmarked door on the first floor. The door is locked. But a gentle knock sees it quickly opened to reveal a welcoming face and a functioning newsroom, full of consoles and desks and the hunched backs and screen-lit faces of journalists and editors beavering away on the latest ghastly news emerging from Myanmar.

Off to the left is a TV studio, backed by a green screen, in front of which sits an anchor desk with the words “R Vision” on the front.

According to R Vision (R for Rohingya, if you hadn’t guessed) managing director Muhammad Noor, the site, launched in 2012, was born out of the crisis and is dedicated to bearing witness to its horror. “Our first priority is in covering the daily atrocities committed by the Burmese government on the Rohingya people in [Rakhine] and the overall plight of Rohingya on the diaspora.”

From its office space in Kuala Lumpur — now home to some 100,000 Rohingya refugees — R Vision’s work generates 70,000 plays per day on its YouTube channel (which has more than 100,000 subscribers), 20,000 a day on its website, and 60,000 combined mentions and reposts per day across various social media platforms, mainly Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp.

Its centerpiece is an eight-minute daily video news bulletin, anchored alternately by a male and a female newsreader. This broadcast is in Rohingya language (an Indo-Aryan vernacular with a unique written script known as Hanifi), with a chyron headline for each story in often rudimentary English.

Each edition of the bulletin covers about five stories directly pertaining to the Rohingya and their dealings with the Myanmar military; arrests and village attacks; news from the refugee diaspora in neighboring countries; and statements and actions by international agencies like the United Nations that relate to the Rohingya crisis.

The bulletin also runs a few international stories that serve mainly to link to other Muslim communities (Rohingya are predominantly Sunni Muslims) — for instance, Boko Haram’s actions in Nigeria or the war in Syria.

Funding, says Noor, comes from “a few Rohingya donors…and we get a small portion of advertising revenue from YouTube and Google.”

R Vision copy — in its weekly English bulletin, at least — makes little doubt whose side the network is on. In one randomly sampled broadcast, Rohingya were seen as “innocent,” Buddhist residents of Rakhine as “sycophants,” and the army’s action as “genocide.” Such terms are not necessarily without justification. Stories sometimes miss editorial context you might want or expect, even given the intensity of the current situation.

The weight of the topics covered — actions against the Rohingya have indeed been labeled genocidal by the UN, among others — certainly allows for emotional angles. But the relative lack of journalistic objectivity (or at least reasoned subjectivity) plugs into a wider malaise among Myanmar’s media outlets, where fake news has become rampant.

R Vision uses local citizen journalists to get news out from areas where media is denied access, such as Rakhine. (This is a news media format pioneered and made famous in the country by the formerly illegal and exiled media outlet the Democratic Voice of Burma.) Muhammad Noor says R Vision’s contributors are important to its work.

“We have a network of locals in Rakhine who coordinate with us and send us the factual events and stories,” Noor said. “We have dedicated citizen journalists in Bangladesh, India, and other countries, as well as volunteers who contribute time to time.” Contributors are paid “if they are dedicated,” some on a project basis or via one-time allowances.

R Vision has “multiple sources from the same village or area, so when we get a piece of news, we verify and cross-check with the others nearby and take testimony or eyewitnesses’ explanation if required,” Noor added.

Concerns about the veracity of citizen-reported news are not uncommon in the digital space, of course. R Vision’s often relies on what appears to be a lot of stock or library material — video stories often use stills — which can be hard, for outsiders at least, to authenticate. Burning villages are seen with no real reference points or dates, for example, and individual story subjects often have their faces blocked out or are connected to seemingly random imagery.

Fake news is a widespread phenomenon in Myanmar, and something of a propaganda war appears to be raging over the Rohingya issue.

Issues of objectivity and authentication aside, R Vision seeks to plug a gaping hole in the ongoing Rohingya crisis. Given the strict blockade on media reporting on the situation, the use of citizen journalists, accessing the ever-increasing takeup of information technology in Myanmar, is perhaps the only viable means of communicating what many outside experts call a humanitarian disaster.

Despite a limited staff, scarce resources, and little media experience, R Vision is writing the first draft of a dark moment in human history that may take some time to be fully known.

James Rose is a journalist, author, and consultant based in Australia. Disclosure: He’s worked with members of R Vision, including Muhammad Noor, on his sports charity supporting the Rohingya Football Club in Kuala Lumpur, which is also supported by R Vision.

POSTED     April 20, 2018, 9:08 a.m.
SEE MORE ON Reporting & Production
Show tags
Join the 60,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
“We will all have to adjust to a new workflow. If it is a bottleneck, it will be a failure.”
“Impossible to approach the reporting the way I normally would”: How Rachel Aviv wrote that New Yorker story on Lucy Letby
“So much of the media coverage — and the trial itself — started at the point at which we’ve determined that [Lucy] Letby is an evil murderer; all her texts, notes, and movements are then viewed through that lens.”
Increasingly stress-inducing subject lines helped The Intercept surpass its fundraising goal
“We feel like we really owe it to our readers to be honest about the stakes and to let them know that we truly cannot do this work without them.”