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Sunday, 10 May 2015





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That other jolt from Nepal's 'quake

Many years after the great Ethiopian famine of 1984, a British television reporter - a veteran of many conflicts and disasters - conceded with remarkable candour that his reports may have inadvertently ended up reinforcing racial stereotypes about Africa.

By repeatedly showing images of white charity workers coming to the aid of helpless starving Ethiopians - ignoring African workers for instance - journalist Michael Buerk and cameraman Mohamed Amin's reports may even have caused a loss of self-esteem among blacks in Brixton and other London neighbourhoods, where they already suffered from racial discrimination at the time.

This important issue - highlighting once again the influential role played by the visual media - later became the subject matter of a report by the non-governmental organization Oxfam. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization, too, commissioned a study on the impact of visual representation of famines on European attitudes.

From being the land of wildlife born and roaming free, diverse Africa had become the continent of dying babies.

To be sure, those moving reports by Buerk and Amin did much good, too - they helped create global awareness about the famine and galvanized global action, culminating in the massive Band Aid charity concert that raised millions of dollars for the victims of the disaster.

Thirty years down the line, we are all older and wiser.

Or so we thought.

Epicentre of parachute journalism

Last week, social media in earthquake-hit Nepal was set abuzz with criticism of the way the tragedy was being reported by Indian television channels, which were busy focusing on the relief and rescue work being carried out by Indian disaster relief forces. A Nepali cartoon showed an Indian television cameraman peeking out of the pocket of an Indian disaster relief worker. The Twitter hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia went viral in Nepal, before being picked up by the Nepali mainstream media and travelling to India.

Ethiopia 1984 and Nepal 2015. Journalists in both settings were products of their societies and conditioned to behave in a certain way. For jingoism is not confined to the Indian airwaves - in 2001, the BBC's veteran diplomatic correspondent, reporting the fall of Kabul, caused much amusement by reporting on radio, "It was only BBC people who liberated this city - we got in ahead of Northern Alliance troops." (He apologized swiftly, saying he was "very, very, very embarrassed.")

The effects what we write in print or what our colleagues say and show on television news channels are never clear-cut - never black and white. Indeed, Indian television may have helped raise awareness of the Nepal earthquake. But Indian television - news as well as fictional serials - is a bit like Hindi-language films: factual documentaries, largely, do not exist, and everything is black-and-white in colour. Forget nuance, balance and objectivity and, most of all, forget reasoned and informed debate.

Eight people, all shouting at the same time while wagging their fingers at the camera, may well be how television news in India wants to style itself and attract advertisements. If that is how debate is meant to be aired in a particular cultural context - debates in Parliament can be similarly noisy - then who is anyone to tell them otherwise.

The problem happens when they step outside familiar ground. Nepal, for instance. Anchor after anchor has spoken about how familiar they are with this country, yet few have really studied its politics, history, society and economics.

Few Indian journalists are hired for their specialization, few develop specialisms at work, say South Asian politics and culture. Why bother - aren't they all a bit like us.

Does anyone even speak Nepali? The result is loose talk of conspiracies - that foreign office favourite - apparently hatched by "anti-Indian sections in Nepal".

International media mess

The problem occurs when they cover international news, or even South Asian news, which has been scaled down the order of priorities for years, so that even for conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan or, to a lesser extent, Sri Lanka, much of the Indian media has taken its news from global media outlets - primarily, the big western wire services, American and British newspaper syndicates, the BBC and CNN.

Anyone who has ever visited Nepal and mixed with Nepalis will know the amusement and slight irritation that Indian television news causes there.

One prominent Indian television reporter told me from Kathmandu it's not all Nepalis - it's just "the intelligentsia and media".

But this is a gross over-simplification. When even as good a friend of India as Kanak Dixit, the politically liberal editor of the South Asian magazine, Himal, vents his feelings, it is time to take notice.

Dixit said on Twitter, "We neighbours have watched Indian TV askance for competitive jingoism in reportage and talk shows. This explains much of #GoHomeIndianMedia." Many senior journalists and editors in Indian news channels strongly dispute there is any ill-feeling at all toward the Indian media in Nepal. "It's just one section of the social media," one television news producer told me.

To be fair, social media claims repeated by journalists in India - such as a TV reporter thrusting a mike into the face of a grieving survivor with "Aapko kaisa lagaa?" (how did you feel - are unverified at best. For the moment, they look to be urban legends. But another Indian journalist, a person who is familiar with Nepal and the recent events, took a more objective view. The person did not want to be named.

"Look, there's been a race from day one, on who would be the first channel to get to the epicenter of the earthquake. And the government of India brought these reporters along, like embedded journalists, trying to copy the Yanks.

"The Indian guys were hobnobbing with the Indian journalists. The local journalist was left out, and that's why this whole thing happened. The local media were given access only a week later.


"On the one hand, it was like an Indian PR exercise. On the other hand, just about every one of the Nepali journalists has been affected by the earthquake in one way or the other. They have been camping out, living in tents. But still, the way they (Nepali media) have covered the disaster, they've really stood out in my opinion."

Every reporter wants to save a baby, every reporter wants their army to pull someone out alive, every reporter wants to be the first on Ground Zero.

A temple stood in the midst of rubble, we were told - over and over again. This is the problem of parachute journalism, and there is nothing new in it. We have all done it.

Western media have practised it for decades but they have also become acutely aware of the problems this can sometimes cause - chiefly bad journalism.

Which is why you see more and more local journalists working for international media the world over. Sadly, news across Indian television channels is a mere platform to hyper-ventilate with hyper-nationalism.

- livemint

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