Q&A: How to Prove a Mass Killing Isn’t “Fake News”

May 8, 2018
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by Leila Miller Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism School Fellowships

As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims began fleeing Myanmar last August, the stories they brought with them to neighboring Bangladesh were horrific. They spoke of mass rapes, murders and arson by the Myanmar military.

The government has denied mass killings of civilians, saying that its military was engaged in clearance operations against Bengali terrorists. Authorities have blocked international attempts to verify the Rohingyas’ claims. They refused to allow foreign journalists to travel freely in the targeted areas and until recently, barred access to delegates from the United Nations. In December, authorities imprisoned two Reuters reporters who had been investigating a massacre in northern Rakhine state, accusing them of violating the country’s Official Secrets Act.

Yet amid the crackdown, some Rohingyas found a way to speak out. Citizen activists risked their lives to film attacks and the aftermath of killings on their cellphones, and smuggled the footage out of the country.

Producer Evan Williams obtained hundreds of these videos for FRONTLINE. He then spent six months verifying the footage, interviewing witnesses and relatives of the deceased in Bangladesh to find out what really happened in Myanmar. Taken together, the evidence reveals an orchestrated effort to target civilians, systematic discrimination and state-sponsored violence — including mass murder — against the Rohingya people.

We sat down with Williams to talk about the work behind his new documentary, Myanmar’s Killing Fields, describing how his team authenticated the footage, tracked down witnesses and balanced a reporter’s need for skepticism with sensitivity to the victims. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

The Myanmar government has restricted access to journalists who want to report on the Rohingyas. What kind of access did you have?

They’ve been taking carefully selected journalists on media trips to selected villages or areas and very much controlling the information they’ve been getting out. They might go to a couple buildings that had been built for alleged repatriation or rebuilding where they say they are going to return the Rohingyas. There might be Rohingyas who are still there who are going to be carefully selected and monitored by the military and the security services in terms of what they are saying, and they will tell you, of course, everything is fine.

We didn’t go to northern Rakhine, where most of the Rohingyas have been forced out of. We couldn’t get in there because the military and the government wouldn’t give us permission. But actually, the story is really with the Rohingyas in Bangladesh. It’s in the camps where all the people are.

You spent about six months trying to corroborate these videos and other footage you gathered. What was that process like?

I started asking around my contacts and found there was this network of Rohingya civilians, citizen journalists, who had been taking stuff on their phone over the last few years and had been trying to get it out. They had been getting it out through an NGO in Myanmar and that NGO had a connection with a human rights organization in London.

That organization, that doesn’t want to be named for their own security reasons, had been helping to train the Rohingya citizen journalists in properly categorizing or capturing raw information from the field. I had a drive of videos and I had a spreadsheet with all the videos labeled, and the location, the date, the person who had filmed it, and any cross verification they could have done, like local media or state media reports or statements by the government.

We want to find people who are in those videos, and that’s the key starting point of verification because then you can get the real story. If you see them in the video, in the moment of crisis, and then you can talk to them about what was actually happening, it is undeniable from the government point of view that these people went through that event.

You cross-check with human rights reporting of the same location or other news reporting of that same location, and then you start building a picture … The film is effectively based on people we met who we first saw in the raw videos. Then we go out and meet them and interview them in depth, then we interview other people whom we saw in videos in the same place. Then we interview other people who are not even in the videos, but independently, you start to build up the same story.

In a refugee camp in Bangladesh, you were able to track down a man who we see being beaten in one of these videos by Border Guard Police. How did you find him?

We sent a screen grab of that particular image to our fixer. The way that the camps are organized is that often people from the same place will be more or less in the same location in the camps. You get the fixer to talk often to the village headman or the village administrator who is still in the camps and is still effectively in charge of 100 households, or 150 households. They’re organized to a degree that you’ve just got to contact the right person who knows everybody. And then you say, “Does anybody know this man?”

Then you get there and you can see whether or not that’s the right guy, and then they give you the description of what actually was happening. That was a very good example because that video had been online, and it had been used a couple of times with news programs … You didn’t know anything about what was actually happening and what happened subsequent to what happened in the video. These guys were able to tell us exactly what happened and why the Border Guard Police were there, what they did. The guy who is being kicked in the video gives a very good description of that brutality.

There’s one scene where you ask a man who had been in the village of Monu Para, one of the first to be attacked, how many patches of blood he saw. Why did you ask such a specific question?

 It’s often just a very basic series of questions: who are they, what’s their age, what do they do? These are basic questions you can think to check with other people about the same individual, or you get an idea from the response [if] they don’t really know the information.

He’d gone back the day after the military was there with a phone, with a camera, and had filmed the patches of blood on the ground. We had other people telling us that something like 80 people, men and boys, had been held by the military in that compound … and that many of them were taken into the trees and executed. I asked him that question because I was trying to work out, as a cross-verification, was there any relationship between what other people told us about the number of people being held by the military that day in the compound and the number of people that might have been taken to the trees. The fact that he said he counted 66 patches was getting close to the number of people we believed to have been executed in that site.

Why did you think he counted the patches?

 He was looking at I.D. cards of his friends on the ground, clothes of people he recognized. He went back, he deliberately filmed that scene to make a point of recording it to get it out. They were filming that as evidence of a massacre … It sounds strange, but in these situations of stress, sometimes people will really focus on detail, and I believe that’s what he did in that case.

In some cases, you were asking relatives or acquaintances of people who had died to help corroborate a death. You’re asking people to relive a traumatic experience. 

It’s a very difficult call. In some cases, you need to take a judgment as to whether or not it’s the right thing to do. There’s one case in particular with a village called Dar Gyi Zar, which was attacked in [November] 2016 – very important example of what was happening before this story all broke in world news … We had a lot of video … and we found the people who were from that village.

We interviewed them about what happened there before we showed them the video … You want the two things to be separate, and if the two things match, it’s another way of verifying. We talked to them about what was happening in their area, and it was all consistent. Then I said to them, ‘We’ve got some video here’ … They wanted to see this video. They wanted to help us verify this information so that we could then use it.

Were people generally willing to speak to you?

They’re desperate, absolutely desperate to speak. They feel like the world has ignored them for so many years, ever since the first violence of 2012. There’s been some stories, there’s been some excellent reporting over the years, but not a lot, and they feel that partly [the reason] this whole thing has been brought on is because the Myanmar authorities, the Myanmar military particularly, think or feel or know that they can get away with this. That’s partly because of the lack of pressure, that’s partly because of the lack of media coverage of their situation.

What risks did members of the Rohingya face by talking to you and did you take any precautions to make sure that they would be safe?

They’re going to be in Bangladesh for quite some time. None of these interviews could have occurred inside Myanmar. They would have all been at some sort of risk immediately. Given what’s going on, and given the fact that it is unlikely they’ll be returning anytime soon, most of the people we spoke to were simply giving an account of what they had seen.

The person we had to be very careful of was the guy who represented the network who had been filming secretly, which is a criminal offense or can be a criminal offense in Myanmar and can lead to some sort of sanction. They have been hunting them down. People have been hunting down the activists who have been filming. If you’re caught with images on your phone, you can be arrested, you can be executed. That’s happened in the past. That’s why we’ve deliberately not identified him and we tweaked his voice.

For the people giving the accounts, they’re all very aware that it’s their decision whether they want to identify themselves and they all want to. And they’re really giving an account of what they’ve been through, they’re not breaking the law.

How did you balance the skepticism that a reporter is supposed to have with being sensitive to the trauma that people have experienced?

When we spoke to Nur Begum, who was a woman who was gang raped by soldiers, there was a very uncomfortable moment where she was completely distraught in retelling the story. It was quite uncomfortable. But I need to ask questions that were basically … not skeptical, but there was certain information I needed to know. She looked at me in this moment and just said, basically, ‘Don’t you believe me?’ I felt terrible because here’s this poor woman, and I just had to explain to her very carefully that I am only asking these things so we could use the story.

You interviewed Myanmar’s minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement. Why was only one Myanmar minister willing to talk to you?

 I don’t know, but I’m assuming that they don’t want to engage. They are not comfortable with standing up and defending or being challenged on any of this — any of the officials in Myanmar. They don’t like it. They think the West doesn’t understand the situation, doesn’t understand their challenges.

What were your interactions like with members of the Buddhist nationalist movement?

There’s a section of the Buddhist nationalists which are very extreme, and they’re basically anti-Muslim. They see themselves engaged in a historical battle to draw a line against Muslim expansionism. You’ve got to remember that Bangladesh is a Muslim country, Myanmar is its border. They’ve got Indonesia to the south, Malaysia to the south, and they see historically this battle between Islam and Buddhism.

It’s a very racist take on things. It’s basically looking down on them [the Rohingyas] as being non-humans and not part of the country. That exacerbates the tensions, really, and gives the Rohingyas a very small chance at having a proper place in society where that sentiment is very vocal.

What is your sense of how the typical person in Myanmar, not necessary a member of the Buddhist nationalist movement, feels about what’s happened?

The general view among most Buddhist Burmans is sadly that the Rohingyas are a problem. They’re generally anti-Muslim, they’re generally buying the Buddhist nationalism line. It’s actually becoming very popular. I believe it’s being manipulated for political reasons by the military and by a section of the Buddhist clergy and other politicians. Everybody is buying the line that the Muslims are a problem, they’re violent, they’re not really part of society, they shouldn’t really be here.

They see them as being not from Burma. They’re forgetting that large numbers of Rohingya Muslims were living in northern Rakhine for centuries, even though some might have come over during the British time.

What was your most unexpected takeaway from your investigation? 

I was surprised by the degree of enthusiasm with which the Rohingyas wanted to tell their story, having gone through all that — men, women and children. I was surprised by the degree of organized savagery by the Myanmar authorities. I didn’t really understand the full degree of that until we really went through with interviews … I think the organized nature of the savagery —  surprises isn’t the right word — shocked, disturbed, upset us. It’s pretty bad. It’s the worst I’ve ever heard, and I’ve been doing this for a while.

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