In documenting historical records of destruction or grievous danger to a peoples over time, digital trails are a human rights crusader’s best–sometimes most accurate–source of evidence. And yet at the same time, such data can fall into the wrong hands, putting the lives of the persecuted, and those fighting for their rights, at grave risk. Today, we consider digital footprints in the context of the growing body of evidence on the Rohingya genocide.
From online videos of eyewitness testimonies to satellite images of arson or environmental degradation, we have increasing access to more relevant data today than ever before. When used responsibly, this data can help ensure justice for survivors of gender-based violence or help book war criminals to account in a court room.
WITNESS’ Asia-Pacific team recently caught up with activist Jamila Hanan, who has been campaigning for the rights of Burma’s Rohingya people since 2012. She shared with us her experiences, methods and challenges in documenting and verifying eyewitness accounts of the atrocities committed against the Rohingya people by harnessing online media:
Why did you decide to launch the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign, and what has the response been like over the years?
I was first introduced to the plight of the Rohingya during the attacks in 2012, and was so shocked by what I learnt, I felt compelled to use my voice on social media to raise awareness and campaign for their rights. When I started, out few people seemed to know what was happening. It was clear to me from the start that even back then, this was a genocide and I expected media to jump on the story once they knew about it. I soon learnt that is not how mainstream media works.
Over the years, due to the hard work of many activists, and sadly the increasing scale of attacks on the Rohingya, awareness has gradually grown. The recent mass exodus has now put this issue into mainstream media where it should have been reported for years now but wasn’t. It is good to see the media coverage the issue is getting now, but sad that things had to get so bad in order for this to become an issue of clear international concern.
“We want people to consider, if they do not take the time and effort to defend the Rohingya minority, one day it could be their rights that are taken away from them too.“
In October 2016, a new phase of military clearance operations against the Rohingya was launched, and then in January 2017 I was approached by Shahid Bolsen regarding strategy in campaigning. He asked if I had considered targeting multi-national corporations to call on them to act. It was as a result of our in-depth discussions regarding our ideas on such an approach that we decided to launch an organised digital campaign.
We brought together a team of concerned online activists who have also supported the Rohingya over the years, to help with brainstorming and actions, and together we decided to launch the campaign using the hashtag #WeAreAllRohingyaNow. We felt it tied in with feelings worldwide regarding the oppression of civil liberties, which the Rohingya suffer far more than others.
The #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign is entirely focused on calling on multinational corporations to speak out and eventually act on behalf of the Rohingya. It is focusing on these corporations because we believe they have more power and influence that they could exert on the Myanmar military than our own governments do in today’s world.
What have been some of your and your team’s methods and processes in collating data from the ground?
The gathering of data is not an activity of the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign – that campaign is very strategically focused to bring about actions that might stop the genocide and return citizenship rights to the Rohingya, rather than on data-reporting or raising awareness. However, as an individual, I spend much time in collating data reports from the ground, which are then of course useful as information for the #WeAreAllRohingyaNow campaign to act upon, to help us work out best strategy at any time.
I have at times tried to get more people involved with gathering this data, but up until now I have found it difficult to get volunteers to put in the daily dedication and persistence required to keep up with this task, so at the moment I do this mostly by myself. The most useful thing I have done regarding this is a simple online data log of all the reports that come in daily from people on the ground. I have a Twitter list (@AllRohingyaNow) of my most trusted contacts that I check each day for any new reports which I then record, including date and place name of each incident.
“The data log is shared as a Google document for anyone to access and download, which many people use to help with their own research.“
I try to work out coordinates for each incident reported, and use these to map events on to a shared GoogleMap, in which I also embed images and YouTube videos. Mapping the data is very useful to help see at a glance what was happening in any one area at any one time or over a period of time, which can help spot relevant events in an area that would otherwise have been missed.
GoogleMap of the Rohingya Clearance Operations 2016-2017:
WITNESS: What have been some challenges that you have encountered in ensuring that data is authentic and verified, and how have you overcome them?
Getting the geographical co-ordinates for places is difficult because the Rohingya use different place names to the official Burmese names for which I have a list of co-ordinates. This is also because the Burmese language uses different characters to the English alphabet, so the same names can often be spelled in several different ways.
To help me resolve this, I depend on trusted Rohingya contacts. I have one Rohingya friend who knows very well the equivalent place names in Maungdaw township, and another that knows well all the places in Buthidaung township. We are in constant contact using Twitter direct messages. But even with these contacts sometimes, we have to ask several people to try and work out some of the names, which can be very time-consuming.
When keeping a daily log, it is really important to not miss a day, as going back to capture data later can be difficult, especially when depending on Twitter, since tweets get quickly buried.
“I find that logging Twitter data is extremely good evidence since every tweet records an automatic date and time that cannot be edited or faked later.”
If multiple people are tweeting the same video with a similar description within a similar time frame that hasn’t been published before, that is a good indication of its authenticity. Much of the data I log is later proven accurate by cross referencing with eyewitness testimonies or satellite imaging that often comes out weeks later.
A Screenshot of GoogleDoc Data Log #2:
I have spent at least an hour, and sometimes several hours, every day just data-logging for the last two months now without a break. I did the same during the attacks from October 2016 through to February 2017 without a single day off. I do so because I know how valuable this data has been and continues to be for so many people, from journalists, to politicians, to human rights workers and now even international lawyers who are working on building up the case of genocide against the Myanmar military. I hope one day it will be presented as evidence when those responsible are eventually tried in the International Criminal Court.
How have you been able to circumvent or debunk certain online narratives that can be deemed as propaganda?
The Myanmar military have tried to portray these latest attacks to clear out the Rohingya as a response to insurgent/terrorist attacks. One way I have been trying to debunk this narrative is to point people to the data log that clearly shows how the clearance operation started well before 25th August, when the insurgent attacks were reported to have taken place. Then there were some mass graves of mutilated bodies dug up by the military who they said were those of Hindus massacred by Rohingya insurgents. Photos were quickly spread around social media as propaganda against the Rohingya.
We all knew that there were many question marks over who had killed these people, and the way in which graphic images of bodies were being used to drive up the hatred against the Rohingya. In that instance, I worked closely with a journalist who was on the ground in the refugee camps in Bangladesh to help research and publish information online that helped draw attention to the inconsistencies in the regime’s narrative.
“Another thing everyone noticed is that there was a sudden increase in new Twitter accounts created at the beginning of September, shortly after the attacks on the Rohingya began–an army of new Twitter trolls.”
The best way to deal with them I have found is to report and block anyone who is tweeting propaganda against my tweets. These trolls are easily identifiable because of the dates on which their Twitter accounts were created, and they all tweet the same junk at the same time.
Do you think that there is room to prioritise or push the gendered nature and repercussions of the crusade against the Rohingya among the media?
I am very concerned about the awful attacks against Rohingya women, rape and sexual assault is very much a part of genocide, but perhaps not everyone understands that an attack on the women is also an attack on the men. There is perhaps nothing much worse for a husband or a father than to witness his own wife or daughter raped, when he is totally unable to defend her.
“What interests me more is how to translate the growing concern about the media reports that are coming out into meaningful action that could actually help these victims, and bring some degree of protection for women and girls in the near future.”
Through working closely with reporters and aid workers on the ground, activists such as myself can identify practical steps that we can assist with to help make a difference. One example, women who are now on their own because husbands and fathers have been killed or taken away, are very vulnerable to sexual assault. Gathering firewood is therefore a dangerous activity; it means they have to go out on their own. But this risk could be reduced if we were to buy gas stoves and cylinders for these vulnerable ladies to do their cooking.
Once such a need has been identified, as an activist, I then go about trying to work out how we could make such a project happen. Sometimes this might be through crowdfunding and passing on funds raised to someone working in the area. It could be as simple as passing on the idea to an organisation that might already have the resources ready to act on the information presented.
Photo Credit: Shafiur Rahman
- Check out the campaign’s blog site here and their YouTube channel here.
- Read our earlier blog post on the importance of verifying digital data streaming out of the Rohingya crisis.
- These interview tips will ensure the dignity and respect of survivors of gender-based violence.
- Watch this video which was adapted from WITNESS’ tip sheet on Filming Hate, a primer for using video to document human rights abuses, to learn how to verify valuable footage.
- If you are one of hundreds or thousands reporting from the front lines of this refugee crisis with your mobile phone, these tips will help ensure you are safe, ethical and effective.
- Will your human rights film be a testimony to truth? Watch 17 short videos that teach video production fundamentals.
Meghana Bahar is WITNESS’ Social Media & Communications Consultant for Asia-Pacific. She is a gender & media specialist, with 18 years of experience in transnational women’s and human rights movements.