'Oxygen of publicity' key to Burmese help

Fundraising efforts for the Burma cyclone disaster appear to have been significantly hampered by the military regime’s ban on reporting from the area.

Compared to the Asian tsunami of 2004 dominated the UK media for weeks, coverage of the Burma disaster has been relatively muted because of the secrecy of the regime. In terms of loss of life, the disasters appear to be on a similar scale – more than 250,000 died in the tsunami, and up to 100,000 are feared dead in Burma.

Following the Asian tsunami the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) – an umbrella organisation of 12 charities in the UK – raised £60m in the first week. The DEC has reported raising £5m in its first five days of collecting for the Burmese crisis.

Charities have expressed their concern that the media’s focus on aid not getting through to victims could discourage people from donating money, while journalists say that the ban means they have to work under extreme conditions to report back what they can.

Public eye

Ben Dempsey, media manager at Save the Children (part of DEC), said the charity was trying very hard to keep in the public eye. ‘We’ve given lots of interviews – to that extent there is information coming out and we’re trying very hard to keep that in the public eye, but because journalists aren’t largely in the country it’s a slower flow of information than you’d usually expect.

‘The story is largely about the media ban and the lack of visas, but meanwhile, there are a lot of people in the country helping a lot of people.

‘As far as we’re concerned the important thing is the number of people affected and the urgency which they need help. It’s unwelcome if there is a distracstory becomes else. We want the people who need our help.”

Brendan Gormley, chief executive of the DEC, told Press Gazette that while the media coverage has been ‘wall to wall and graphic”, he is concerned some of the coverage is out of balance and that aid is not getting through.

‘In terms of barriers [for DEC] to giving the core message, the media coverage has mostly been about aid not getting through,’he said.

‘Normally, in order to catch the public’s attention, you need both to show them that there is a problem and show that something can be done about it.

‘And so, trying to get our story across that we are at work and our members are at the leading edge of the relief efforts has been difficult.

‘Clearly, some of the media have seen that as an additional angle and an important one, but in my judgment it hasn’t broken through.”

Gormley said that due to the media ban in the country it appears that the coverage is ‘being managed by commentators”, in comparison to the tsunami where eyewitness accounts and stories of survival dominated.

He added: ‘The tsunami, overall by a factor of 10, was bigger than anything we’d ever done before. The media’s role was critical, but it told the story in a rather different way.”

The DEC and other charities are helping journalists increase coverage with a number of workers sending in footage and writing blogs for media outlets. The DEC is also producing videos to put on YouTube to raise awareness of the cause, with footage taken by aid workers in the country.

Andrew Kirkwood, Burma director of Save the Children, has been blogging for the BBC, for example.

Jon Williams, the BBC’s world news editor, said that charity workers are helping with material. He said: ‘It’s not their main job, but they want to get the story out. They do this because they believe it drives donations.’

Concern

Williams said that the BBC’s job is to ‘simply report the story’and not to raise money, but that he can understand the concern of the charities.

Tim Singleton, head of foreign news at ITN, said: ‘It’s obviously of interest to our viewers – who are giving money to an appeal – to hear from people who are witnessing things first hand.

‘The appeal needs the oxygen of publicity and while we’re covering the story we’re not covering it in a way we would normally cover a story of this magnitude. Eyewitness reporting is meant to communicate to people directly in their homes and make them care about stories.

‘On stories such as this that’s the way, but if we’re unable to do that then unfortunately I would imagine it may well have an effect.”

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