When messengers shoot the message

Basharat Peer

Basharat Peer

Television is a noisy medium but it can convey silence with great power and effectiveness, when it chooses to. In the past week, Indian television journalists covering the earthquake in Nepal have generated a great deal of sound and fury. Apart from the insensitivity and the boisterousness, it was the combination of jingoism and the relentless advertising of India’s aid efforts by television reporters embedded with the Indian forces that led to the intensely hostile reactions from Nepalese citizens on Twitter, the creation of the hash tag of protest: >#IndianMediaGoHome . It is undeniably an age of advertised charity but the gloating does hurt the recipients of your generosity.

Unlike the televised hysterics, the broken villages of Nepal and their residents were quiet, subdued, dignified. Whether it was mountainous expanses of Sindhupalchowk district, where more than 1,100 people were killed, or Sankhu outside Kathmandu, where several thousand houses in a dense urban cluster were wiped out, the dignity of the Nepalese men and women, quietly digging through the remains of their lost homes was the most striking aspect of reporting on the earthquake.

Striking dignity In their interviews, they were stoic, recounting the terrors of the day, the journeys of a lifetime in an unhurried way. It was easy to detect a tinge of frustrated resignation at the delayed relief measures, the inefficiency and weakness of their government in their voices. A woman who had been waiting for five days for help to get her daughter’s body retrieved from the rubble of a house was not hysterical. She stood quietly in the middle of a street and requested people to help. A man who had helped dig out bodies of four family members and was working with Nepalese Army rescuers to retrieve the fifth body of someone from his family was prosaic about helping find the right place to dig through the rubble of what was a four-storied house. In the hospitals, the surgeons who were working the longest hours went about their work patiently, professionally.

In the emergency ward of Bir Hospital, one of the biggest hospitals in Kathmandu, the people who were intrusive were the reporter and the cameraman of a television network, who chose to read out his dispatch by the bed of a boy, whose arms and legs were broken and whose head was being shaved as the doctors prepared him for a surgery for his head injury. There was also a Western photographer who jumped around the bed trying to find the right angle for a shot.

Even the most dramatic rescue operations were conducted in grave silence. In the Maitrinagar neighbourhood of Kathmandu, which houses low-end hotels, mostly used by Nepal’s migrant workers leaving for or returning from their jobs in India, Korea, or the West Asian and Arab countries, scores of buildings had pancaked. A several-storied hotel, Pokhara Guest House, had collapsed on itself and a group of French rescue workers and Nepalese paramilitary force men had recovered several bodies. A few hundred people watched the rescue operations in silence as the rescuers used mikes connected to sensitive machines which could track faint sounds and signs of life.

Media insensitivity The noise throughout >the aftermath of the earthquake came from television crews and their absurd questions, their indifference to the dignity of the survivors and the victims. The callousness wasn’t restricted to Nepalese citizens they interviewed, they wouldn’t even spare the team of Indian Police Service (IPS) and Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers who were at the Mt. Everest base camp when the earthquake struck and an avalanche destroyed the base camp, killing at least 17 climbers and sherpas. After three very difficult days, the four officers — one of them injured — were airlifted by a private helicopter and left at the Tenzing-Hillary airport in Lukla, the landing point closest to the Everest base camp. Several bodies of the dead climbers lay on the airstrip. On leaving the airstrip, Sohail Sharma, a Maharashtra-cadre IPS officer, was lugging two heavy bags and walking uphill to a hotel. A young man began walking beside him and struck up a conversation about his close call at the Everest camp.

Sharma, a 27-year-old, was exhausted after three days of horror and almost no food. He panted as he spoke to the young man and climbed the hill. After a while, he called his mother, who lives in Amritsar, from the hotel. She had been crying. The young man following Sharma turned out to be a reporter with a Hindi television network. He had secretly recorded their conversation. Sharma’s mother in Amritsar had heard her son’s straining voice at home. The worried mother, who had waited days for news of her son, broke down. “After everything we had been through, they made my mother cry,” Sharma told me.

Kashmir parallel What the television networks did in Nepal was a repetition of how they covered the >Kashmir floods . In their gratitude to the Air Force officers who allowed them on the helicopters, their attempts at reporting briskly morphed into exercises in propaganda. In Kashmir, wherever the Indian helicopters dropped food packages, the embedded cameramen would zoom in at an angle that showed the desperate survivors in most inhumane light scrambling like insects on the ground. When they took over the rescue boats and thrust their mikes into faces of people stuck in submerged homes, the stupidity of the questions was legendary. One rather famous television journalist asked a man holding his child, “Is this your son?” Then there were the fake stories about the Army rescuing the separatist patriarch, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who happened to live in a neighbourhood unaffected by the floods.

A reminder that the humiliating coverage of the Kashmir floods has not been forgotten is in the popularity of a cartoon drawn by Mir Suhail, a young Kashmiri cartoonist for a Srinagar-based paper, which shows a television news reporter poking out of an Indian soldier’s uniform pocket with a camera. It has been one of the most used satirical images of the Nepal coverage.

A self-pat The self-congratulatory tone of the Indian relief efforts in Nepal was partly set by the Indian government itself. Prime Minister Narendra Modi told journalists in New Delhi that Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, who was visiting Thailand at the time of the earthquake, learnt about the quake from Mr. Modi’s tweet. Four days after the earthquake, a Minister of the Modi government spoke in Parliament about India’s emergence as a leading nation in disaster response. The feverishness to advertise the aid for Nepal was also found on the social media accounts of various government agencies.

The anger in Nepal has grown to include criticism for the Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots for making it a priority to carry Indian journalists and allegedly ignoring the advice of local government officials. On Tuesday, Annapurna Post , a widely read Nepali language newspaper, ran a report from Gorkha, the district that is the epicentre of the earthquake, with the headline: “CDO tells PM, Indian Helicopters Humiliate Us.” Mr. Sushil Koirala was visiting Gorkha and had held meetings with local officials. It reported that Uddhav Timilsina, the Chief District Officer of Gorkha, complained to Mr. Koirala about the IAF pilots not coordinating with the local officials and creating problems with management of relief efforts. “At our meeting at the day’s end, we prepare a schedule on what to do next. But the India choppers don’t follow it. They either don’t fly according to our schedule or fly in Indian journalists,” he said. (A journalist from Nepal, who doesn’t want to be named, helped translate this report.)

Competitive influence The projection of the Indian efforts in Nepal certainly had the subtext of India-China competition for influence over the country. Even without the breathlessness of television networks, the Indian presence in Nepal is far more visible than the Chinese presence. Grocery stores, taxi drivers, and hotels freely accept Indian rupees. On cable television in Nepal, you get a few Chinese networks and scores of Indian news and entertainment networks. Apart from a range of cars, an overwhelming number of motorcycles and scooters are visible on the streets of Kathmandu. Most of them are imported from India. The number of Nepali citizens going to study or work in India is immensely greater than those who travel to China.

Although as several scholarly studies of ‘The CNN Effect’ have shown, television reporting has far less impact on foreign policies than the journalist would like to believe, Indian television news has certainly defeated the Indian government in the game of perceptions. On the other hand, the Chinese, who were skewered for their ham-handedness and racist behaviour in African countries, seem to have learned a few lessons in messaging.

China Central Television’s coverage of the Nepal disaster, was like most of its coverage — prosaic and staid. Its English language website has a tiny section with a few stories on China’s aid effort in Nepal. China Daily and its weekly Asia edition did more to publicise the Chinese aid efforts, but it was a shrewdly restrained exercise. Indian relief and rescue teams had arrived much before the Chinese teams in Nepal, a fact the China Daily ’s Asia Weekly edition worked around by writing in a story that “China’s International Search and Rescue Team, established in 2001, was the first international rescue team with United Nations credentials for major disaster relief missions to arrive in Nepal.” A Xinhua report about the Upper Tamakoshi Hydropower project, where China’s Sinohydro Corporation Limited manages the construction, spoke about the safety of the project and the Chinese workers stranded there. The message about the efficiency and strength of Chinese-built infrastructure was hard to miss.

(Basharat Peer is The Hindu ’s Roving Editor.)

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Printable version | Jun 27, 2022 2:09:58 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/Basharat-Peer-on-Nepal-quake-victims-reaction-on-Indian-media-When-messengers-shoot-the-message/article62119821.ece