In the days after the deadly earthquake, many a Nepali eye lit up with gratitude at the sight of an Indian. Smashed by the disaster, Nepal was grateful India had rushed help and succour without even waiting to be asked.
As I and my colleague arrived in Nepal to cover the aftermath of the temblor, we experienced much of that warmth. From our taxi driver and the staff at our hotel in Kathmandu to survivors in ruined Nepali villages, none failed to remind us of our government’s generosity. In a neighbour’s hour of grief it was hardly a compliment to relish.
But within days the mood changed. First, Nepali official corridors rumbled with discontent over New Delhi’s unilateral disaster response. But if such heartburn was so far out of public view, a section of the Indian media’s tendentious narrative soured New Delhi’s efforts in the eyes of many ordinary Nepalis.
Our media, especially some influential TV stations, chose to extol their hometown heroes. It ignored the tremendous display of dignity and resilience from millions of grief-stricken Nepalis. It ignored the role of Nepali rescue and relief teams, hijacking a disaster response that saw 33 other nations also contributing.
But, mostly importantly, many in the Indian media ignored the pain and suffering of the survivors. Nepalis, a staunchly proud and dignified people, found this hurtful. To them, the Indian news narrative appeared as mere advertorial for a powerful neighbour’s generosity.
India’s official apparatus largely served in Nepal without much fuss. But one could discern a self-congratulatory undertone in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remark that his Nepali counterpart came to know of the earthquake from his tweets. The Indian media’s self-serving narrative seemed an extension of the same sense of condescension.
To be fair, sensationalism is the lifeblood of commoditised news. Modern day information consumption follows marketplace dynamics. Hence, in theory, retaining eyeballs is necessary for advertisement revenues that could fund genuine journalism. The worry is even when some of India’s influential mainstream media outlets try to do genuine reporting, the end result remains deeply lacking, both in content and form.
In Nepal, our media’s coverage was largely shorn of the basic tenets of disaster reporting –the imperative to stay focused on the public service value of reporting a catastrophe as well as keeping the spotlight on the people and events around them, not on self-promotion and political advocacy.
In a way, India’s response to the disaster and its media’s oversized, chest-thumping coverage of that effort seemed aimed at a wider strategic goal: To trump China. Comparisons with the Chinese effort were unsubtle and even jingoistic on some occasions. Ironically, in a country where public suspicion of Big Brother India is deep-seated, such egregious news coverage only worsens discontent.
Worldwide, the media is often accused of following templatised coverage of wars, epidemics, natural disasters, accidents and terrorist attacks. Sometimes that can come replete with cultural insensitivities and at the cost of journalistic empathy, propriety, grace and decorum. Just like a section of our media’s reporting of the earthquake in Nepal.