Why is Indian media facing a backlash in Nepal?

Soutik Biswas
Delhi correspondent

  • Published
An Indian shopkeeper reads a newspaper with front-page news of Nepal earthquake in Mumbai, India, Sunday, April 26, 2015Image source, AP
Image caption,
Many in Nepal feel Indian media's coverage of the earthquake has been shrill and jingoistic

Narratives of disasters can easily go awry and make the affected people angry. So it seems to be the case with the Indian media and its coverage of the devastating earthquake in neighbouring Nepal.

As the impoverished Himalayan state struggles to recover from a calamity which has killed more than 7,000 people and left more than 14,000 people wounded, the media next door has been facing a lot of criticism for its coverage of the tragedy.

So much so that by the weekend, the hashtag #GoHomeIndianMedia became a top social media trend in Nepal with tens of thousands of tweets on the subject. People complained that the coverage had been insensitive and jingoistic, among other things.

"Your media and media personnel are acting like they are shooting some kind of family serials," wrote an anguished Sunita Shakya of Nepali origin in her blog. "If your media person can reach to the places where the relief supplies have not reached, at this time of crisis can't they take a first-aid kit or some food supplies with them as well?"

There are stories aplenty of how the Indian media - mainly the news channels - have covered the quake. A reporter seized a wounded survivor and paraded her in front of the cameras rather than putting some cloth to stop the bleeding. Another one asked a woman whose only son was buried under a wreck, "How do you feel?".

Yet another kept asking rescue workers what technology they were using at work. In a quake-hit village, a reporter worked up a veritable hysteria, asking affected villagers what their government was actually doing for them. "Our media", tweeted India's former minister Shashi Tharoor, "continues to embarrass and dismay India."

To be true, nobody in Nepal denies that India's response to the tragedy has been fleet-footed and enormously helpful. It has also rightfully earned a lot of praise. India is leading the search-and-rescue efforts with 704 personnel on the ground, followed by China (168), Bangladesh (140) and the US (120).

But the grumbling noises in Nepal began before the backlash against the media.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Indian TV channels are freely available in Nepal

There has been some discontent over the unsurprising access that Indian media were getting on the relief sorties being run by the Indian air force planes. Many in Nepal believe that the air force was more interested in rescuing stranded Indians rather than helping evacuate quake affected people.

There were allegations that the air force planes had virtually taken control of the airport, thus slowing down other international aid efforts. Also many in Nepal feel that the "outsized" coverage of the Indian effort had put to shade heroic efforts made by the Nepalese army, its armed police and the beleaguered local officials who have tried their best to work in very difficult circumstances. "India, anyway, is often criticised in Nepal for the involvement of its government in Nepal's internal politics," says Kathmandu-based senior editor Yubaraj Ghimire. The growing backlash against the India media has added fuel to the ire.

Nepalese people watch a lot of Indian TV which is freely available in the country. They are also prolific on social media. As a friend in Kathmandu says, the Nepalese are used to watching shrill and jingoistic prime time talk shows on some Indian news channels usually excoriating Pakistan. Suddenly, with scores of Indian TV reporters flooding Nepal in the aftermath of the quake, the Nepalese, he says, find themselves at the receiving end of similar jingoism. One biting cartoon showed a TV reporter in the pocket of a gleeful Indian soldier posing with a box screaming Aid for Nepal. "The shrillness, jingoism, exaggerations, boorishness and sometimes mistakes in coverage have rankled the host community," Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of the highly respected Himal Southasian magazine, tells me.

Part of the problem, say many, is possibly the fact that many Indian media organisations have stopped investing in neighbourhood coverage. As news become intensely local, coverage has turned more inwards, and Indian media houses have a negligible presence in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. (It is difficult for an Indian journalist to travel to Pakistan and vice versa.)

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The quake killed more than 7,000 people

So when hordes of young Indian journalists from hundreds of news TV channels are flung into covering a big news event in the neighbourhood, the deficiencies show. For many, says a senior Kathmandu-based editor, the first stop is the Indian embassy to pick up the cues that often end up colouring the coverage.

Also, many say, Indian media's overdependence on access-based journalism means that a disproportionate amount of coverage often ends up on eulogising how their government and its agencies handle crises - there was similar criticism of the media's coverage of flood-affected people in the Kashmir Valley last year. Some channels also pretty openly identify themselves with the ruling government and the bias is amply reflected in the coverage.

"The mainly social media backlash in Nepal does point to an irritation of local people with the way their tragedy has been covered by India," says Kanak Mani Dixit. "It is possibly time now for India's news channel to introspect and give some due respect to the host country." There are mounting worries at home over the declining quality of Indian media and what many call the "tabloidization of news". Also, more disturbingly, as Prannoy Roy, chief of India's leading NDTV news channel worries, "Why is India becoming 'no country for honest journalism'?"