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
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
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
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.