Young Rohingya volunteers had been secretly reporting on persecution of the Muslim minority in Myanmar since 2012, sending photos, videos and audio clips out of the country using smartphones.
Human rights groups claim the Myanmar military have killed and abducted many of the reporters to “sabotage” the networks and that there is now very little reporting on what is happening in the closed state of Rakhine.
Rohingya refugee Mohammad Rafique, who edits the Rohingya community news portal The Stateless, said that “over 95%” of Rakhine’s mobile reporters had gone missing since the crackdown began.
“Burmese security forces and Rakhine militia are still committing rapes, killings and arson in the Rohingya villages. But [as] the Rohingya mobile reporter network [is] dysfunctional there now, the detailed information of the violence, which we need to produce credible media reports, is not reaching us,” Rafique said.
“International media reporters and human rights activists too gather persecution and violence-related information from the Rohingya mobile network. They all, including our community’s media outlets, are being starved of information from Rakhine now.”
When riots broke out between Buddhists and Rohingya in Rakhine in 2012, the authorities deployed the military, with allegations surfacing that the army committed human rights abuses in the Rohingya villages. With silence from the Myanmar media on the violence, Rohingya community leaders set up the network of undercover citizen reporters, who began documenting incidents and sending reports out of the country, mostly for use by Rohingya media outlets.
Ko Ko Linn, a Bangladesh-based Rohingya community spokesperson, said 2,000 had been active in 2016: “During the military crackdown in Rakhine last year, the mobile reporters collected detailed information of the actions in the villages. Their reports let the world know how exactly the security forces and their Rakhine militia partners committed excesses in the villages in the name of a security crackdown.”
Linn himself is the latest victim of the enforced disappearances – he vanished from Bangladesh one week after this interview took place.
Noor Hossain, 25, a former mobile reporter who fled to Bangladesh in early September, said they took extraordinary risks to gather information.
“We used to hide ourselves the moment the security forces approached our villages. After they left the villages following their raids we would appear on the scenes with our mobile phones, gather on-the-spot information of abuses, violence and other related incidents and send them out through the internet immediately,” he said.
“The security forces are aiming to kill Rohingya men who are found with smartphones.”
Adilur Rahman Khan, of human rights group Odhikar, said he believed the army was sabotaging the network. “We are extremely concerned that many of the horrific level of abuses, including rapes, killings and arson are going unreported,” Khan said.
“Many of the young Rohingya rights defenders became victims of enforced disappearances by the security forces in Myanmar. The military also killed many and scared away the rest out of the country to sabotage the plan of the international human rights groups to gather evidence.”
Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch, said: “With Rohingya reporters being absent on the ground, much of the eyewitness video and other information they provided has been lost, and this is a critical missing piece of the puzzle to understand what’s happening on the ground because most of the humanitarian agencies, journalists and international monitors are blocked from most of northern Rakhine state.
“It’s clear that the Myanmar military has been systematically committing atrocities against the Rohingya – but the community’s own monitors are not there to report it any more.”