Nepal’s #Hashtag Rebellion Trumps Indian Media

There’s something frankly post-modern about the nature of the small but effective #GoBackIndianMedia hashtag rebellion mounted by sections of Nepal’s ‘twitterati’ that sent the Indian media packing from there.

Kathmandu: Indian Army, along with locals, clear the 8-km track from Valuwa to Mandhra, blocked in the recent earthquake, in Kathmandu, Nepal. PTI Photo

Kathmandu: Indian Army, along with locals, clear the 8-km track from Valuwa to Mandhra, blocked in the recent earthquake, in Kathmandu, Nepal. PTI Photo

There’s something frankly post-modern about the nature of the small but effective #GoBackIndianMedia hashtag rebellion mounted by sections of Nepal’s ‘twitterati’ that sent the Indian media packing from there.

The ‘truth’ about this ‘rebellion’ entirely depends on who is looking at it and from what standpoint. Those who reported the disaster from Nepal, like CNN IBN’s Anubha Bhonsle, have argued that the ‘so-called disgust’ for the Indian media ‘was certainly not tweeted by men and women I met in the villages close to the epicentre’. The point was also reiterated by NDTV India’s Hridayesh Joshi, who spent more than a week in Kathmandu. ‘There was not even a hint of anger among people I spoke to, or among the Nepalis in general’, he told this writer.

The ‘twitterati’, and even sections of the liberal media in Nepal, saw things differently and were clearly upset with the ‘boorish’ coverage, especially by the Hindi networks.  As Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of one of Nepal’s leading publications ‘Himal’, told the BBC’s Soutik Biswas, ‘The shrillness, jingoism, exaggerations, boorishness and sometimes mistakes in coverage have rankled the host community’.

As a media analyst who has done his share of TV reporting and has had the opportunity to watch some of the quake reportage, my conclusion is that the Indian media’s coverage had clear elements of both the boorish and the ‘real’.

In retrospect, the Prime Minister appears to have set the tone for the Indian TV networks. A combination of the accolades the Indian army had received for its rescue operations in Yemen, a visible soft spot for the earthquake-ravaged ‘Hindu’ country (RSS and VHP led rescue and rehabilitation efforts) and, of course, strategic reasons, prompted Narendra Modi to launch a steady flow of tweets which hit the headlines with an obtrusive regularity.

Remember, the real story was the colossal tragedy that had visited our neighbour and not India’s response to it — which at best was a side story. And yet, Modi kept at it. Worse, some of what he put out was downright condescending, like ‘India will do its best to wipe the tears of every Nepali’ and ‘To all those saying #Thank you PM, real thanks should be to our great culture which teaches seva parmo dharma’.  Networks like ‘Aaj Tak’  imbibed this message quite literally, as can be seen from this long format presentation on the tragedy with the tagline ‘Tere dukh ab mere,’ uploaded to YouTube by the channel with a title lifted verbatim from Modi’s ‘India will wipe Nepal’s tears’ tweet.

Scroll down to the comments below the video and one gets a sense of how Nepalis responded to the Aaj Tak story. ‘Wow media, U have make India so great. Stop faking news. Others country also help Nepal lot. U have other motives of helping. Bt other country has help Nepal selflessly. Stop faking news.’ Further down there are many more representing similar sentiments.

I am not suggesting that TV channels were doing Modi’s bidding or taking orders, but for once he appeared impressed with the media, leading him to tweet a congratulatory message to them ‘for bravely covering the disaster from the ground’.

A formidable deployment of men and material described by India’s Ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae as ‘India’s biggest ever response to a natural calamity abroad’ also upped the stakes for India’s TV press corps. It is a moot point how many TV crews would have gone had the Modi government not moved with such alacrity. At its peak, not less than 70 reporters and an equal number of cameramen descended on to the tiny Himalayan state with networks like Aaj Tak and ABP news deploying more than 20 reporters between them.

This surfeit of reporters coupled with plethora of Indian organisations descending on Nepal meant that the bulk of the reportage was mostly through the prism of the army, air force, NDRF and other government agencies. An impression that the week-long coverage of the disaster was largely about India’s heroic relief efforts rather than the plight of the Nepalis is unavoidable. The media’s dramatic presentation added further fuel to fire, with flashing graphics and screaming anchors announcing- ‘Exclusive visuals’, ‘First at the epicentre’ ‘Exclusive report’ etc. Headlines Today anchor Rahul Kanwal’s sprint through shin deep water, mike in hand, eyes staring into the camera and face contorted for dramatic effect even as an Indian army helicopter waited in the background unloading relief supplies, is a case of gratuitous staged drama. Set off against the staggering mortality and ruins around him, this was an affront to anybody’s sensibilities. One didn’t have to be Nepali to feel it.

It is not difficult to imagine why the twitterati were so angry. ’ One of the tweets with the #‘GoBackIndianMedia’ hashtag was addressed to Modi in the following manner, ‘Dear Sir, @Narendramodi India media will sell every dead body for their TRP. Be aware they mite be waiting fo ur turn.’

Sunita Shakya, a non-resident Nepali wrote an open letter to the Indian media:

‘There has been one viral news report going on where a reporter presented how people were fighting for food and one women got injured badly. Thanks to the reporter who had enough time to grab the victim and bring to the camera to show the victim hurt badly on her head. But how surprising he did not have a minute to grab a piece of cloth to stop bleeding….I think you are a human before you become a media person.’

Clearly the reporter thought this was a story waiting to be told. But to the Nepali viewer, the broadcasting of footage showing quake victims fighting over bits and scraps would have been an affront. As Soutik Biswas says, Indian TV coverage somehow conveyed to the Nepalis that ‘Indian efforts had put to shade heroic efforts made by the Nepal army, its armed police and the beleaguered officials who have tried their best in adverse circumstances’.

A comparison with BBC and CNN coverage provides an interesting cross-cultural perspective. Both networks had their share of biases as the focus was tightly kept on the huge pack of missing Everesters, most of whom were Whites/Europeans. But once their reporters began fanning out, there was a certain sobriety to their reportage with the focus tightly on the death and destruction at hand. BBC South Asia bureau chief Justin Rowlatt flew to Langtang, close to the epicentre in a Royal Air Force helicopter with two British Gurkhas, but there is not a word about this in the entire narrative. The report starts by warning viewers of  ‘disturbing images’ and keeps the focus tightly on the story with complete economy of words. Similarly, despite a considerable American presence on the ground, CNN’s reporters did not highlight U.S. relief work or use U.S. logistical support for their reporting.

One of the key problems with army sortie-driven reportage of disasters such as there was in our networks is that it embeds the journalist with the army. This template, perfected in Uttarakhand in 2013, may work well in a national context, but in another country it brought in distortions.

Embedded reporters inevitably failed to report truthfully what they saw and felt. Days before the hashtag rebellion, NDTV India’s Manish Kumar gave a ‘live’ account of the growing resentment in Nepal against India’s monopoly over its airspace. Indian aircraft were not landing to further relief operations, he alleged, quoting sources, but to rescue as many Indians as was possible. But the story was killed by editors sitting in Delhi. Kumar could come clean only because he was not depending on the army’s largesse.

The fundamental problem with Indian reporters, editors and star anchors remains their insularity. Their concerns don’t go beyond the US, Pakistan and China and their broadcast standards are self-referential. Every network wants to be like the other. Indian reporters and editors don’t travel as often as they should. Worse, in following a foreign story, the media almost as a rule look for cues from the government and end up depending on its resources. Unless this trend changes, there is every chance that #‘GobackIndianMedia’ could re-surface in some other form and some other context.

Sandeep Bhushan teaches media studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.