Profit from Pain: Exploitation of Rohingya Photographers by Mainstream Media
The case of Reuters Eyewitness
The increasingly disheartening discovery of how top organisations are exploiting the hard work of Rohingya refugees reached a new high at the recent workshop aimed at safeguarding Rohingya artistic copyrights. There is plenty of evidence showing an appalling trend of unabashed wrongdoing. In this year's Dhaka Tribune and The Daily Star, I, as the organiser of the Rohingya Photography Competition (RPC), have written articles exposing and discussing the glaring infringements by mainstream media who apparently find easy victims in the Rohingya photographers. Additionally, Global Voices conducted an interview with me on the same subject, further bringing this issue to light.
While RPC is striving to reclaim compensation and settlements from a gamut of media organisations, it's infuriating to see the audacity of the involved parties. The offences include blatant theft by local journalists, photographers, or stringers who later peddle the stolen works to big names like Anadolu, Getty, or AFP etc. Other instances involve despicable pilfering directly from the individual photographer's social media account or even RPC itself.
One revealing incident demonstrates how these organisations deceive the Rohingya photographers. Eager to see their work reach a broader audience, these photographers innocently send high-resolution images to the inquiring organisation without engaging in any formal agreement or license-related discussions.
Consider the case of Reuters Eyewitness approaching Mohammed Salim Khan, expressing interest in his video of a fire in the camps (see the video above). Through a thread of WhatsApp messages, Reuters initially requested to use his video for "our news coverage," yet somehow, they had no means to compensate him for it. This latter detail was communicated not once, but twice. Salim persisted and demanded that at the very least, his expenses should be acknowledged.
Caught off guard, the Reuters journalist switched gears and played the card of seeking her editor's approval. After a short time, she resurfaced, offering a paltry $80. The payment was proposed via PayPal, a service that is inaccessible to residents of Bangladesh, (let alone Rohingya refugees!), a fact that Reuters would undeniably be aware of, considering they have stringers and other ground personnel within the country and in the refugee camps who are paid through established processes.
This leads one to question: why could they not arrange a more suitable payment method for Salim? Was this a conscious strategy to avoid payment?
Unsuspecting, Salim graciously accepted this seemingly goodwill gesture. However, it was only after the funds were transferred ( via a UK based PayPal account) that Salim was presented with their terms/agreement. With little more than a cursory glance, he unknowingly signed away a number of rights to his video. The specifics of this agreement were never made clear upfront, not least the fact that Reuters was permitted to sell his video to other news outlets around the world.
A few months down the line, Salim discovered his video being used by The Guardian. The shock of this prompted him to reach out to RPC, unveiling the degree of deceit employed to pry the video from his grasp.
In response to my outreach on this issue, Reuters defended its actions, explaining that their decision to pay depends on a variety of factors, and that the $80 was paid to a PayPal account recommended by Salim. Interestingly, they chose to ignore the issue of PayPal's inaccessibility in Bangladesh, suggesting a possible strategy, to repeat myself, to evade compensation.
They also clarified that Salim had given them non-exclusive permission to distribute his video, and that he still owned the material. However, they conveniently glossed over the fact that these terms were made clear ONLY AFTER the transaction had taken place, and that they had the capacity to sell Salim's work to other outlets without his explicit understanding.
As it stands, Salim is left to grapple with the harsh realities of his inadvertent decision, while Reuters Eyewitness remains silent in the face of my further queries on these matters. It's a disheartening turn of events that underscores the urgent need for enhanced protective measures for these Rohingya photographers.
This is but a drop in the ocean of such cases that the RPC workshop has been painstakingly working to circumvent.
So, what's the deal with Reuters Eyewitness? And similar organisations - for example, Storyful. This is what we can surmise from Salim’s experience:
According to Reuters Eyewitness Twitter description, "@Reuters News Agency journalists use this account to monitor breaking news and to contact people who have captured newsworthy pictures and video." On the surface, it seems quite straightforward. However, as Salim's experience suggests, there is much more than meets the eye.
Imagine this. Reuters needs imagery from a location where they don't currently have their own journalists or stringers at hand. So, they browse social media like seasoned treasure hunters, zeroing in on "people who have captured newsworthy pictures and video."
The moment they reach out, the targeted individual is often dazzled by the unexpected attention. Who wouldn't be flattered to have Reuters, a major global news agency, express interest in their work? This heady experience often leads to any thoughts of compensation being swept under the rug. The majority of these folks are not exactly savvy in handling media affairs, and consequently, they hastily hand over their precious work.
What they don't realise is this: the imagery they part with so readily doesn't just grace Reuters' own channels. The agency also puts on its merchant hat and sells these pieces to the highest bidder. It’s a rather crafty manoeuvre - a harvesting operation that turns global news arenas into a veritable goldmine of freebie stock photos/videos for Reuters to profit from. Not too shabby a deal for them, eh?
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