#IndianMediaGoBack: Oops, we did it again

Don't let one hashtag drown out all the good work that has gone into Nepal earthquake relief work.

 |  10-minute read |   05-05-2015
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#IndianMediaGoBack is trending on Twitter. This time the epicentre of the sentiment is in Nepal, which is reeling under one of its worst earthquakes in more than eight decades.

And at the risk of annoying Britney Spears, it looks like, "Oops, we did it again".

While they are grateful for India along with other countries for standing by them in their hour of need, the Nepalis are angry at what they call the Indian media's excessive publicity of the Indian response. They are annoyed at some of the soap drama kind of coverage that displays insensitivity from sections of the Indian media.

Questions must be asked as to how this happened. And introspection is needed into the ugly side of news professionals and the Indian society alike - which surfaces every time a disaster strikes.

Let's go back to the Uttarakhand floods. On June 26, 2013, after a prolonged patch of rough weather, as an Mi17 took off from Joshimath to Badrinath, I hopped on board along with my cameraperson to reach the holy site at an altitude of some 10,000ft.

Badrinath had been cut off from the national highway in the massive Uttarakhand floods that claimed thousands of lives and left thousands missing - with families not willing to give up hope even now.

When we landed in Badrinath, there was more than a kilometre long queue of people - men, women, young, old, children, waiting to be evacuated by army and air force sorties.

We had decided to spend the night there and then trek back to get a sense if the fitter of the lot could walk back to safety, rather than spend nights in the bone-chilling helipads, waiting for aircraft with limited seating and weather constraints to airlift them. Also, it was a principled position we had taken to fly to distant areas only on the recce aircraft, and mostly to trek back so as not to block rescue seats on sorties, unless unavoidable.

There were barely signs of damage and destruction inside the main town. It had not turned into a ghost like Kedarnath where people had drowned under debris that was eight to ten feet deep. Mercifully, no lives were lost in Badrinath.

But as the arterial road connection got cut off, thousands of pilgrims were stuck for days at a stretch. Locals had opened up their lodges to accommodate pilgrims and tourists for free. They had roofs over their heads, langars or free meals were being served in community kitchens thrice a day, and families were all together with their loved ones.

badri-em-1_050415084305.jpg There was anger against media among those hit by Badrinath floods. (Reuters)

But there was immense anger on the ground. And it got directed towards us as we were one of the first media teams to reach the spot. In the main market, crowds surrounded us, screaming their lungs out as to how the media was not reporting their plight. Fearing a lynch mob, I patiently listened to them and signalled to my cameraperson to pretend to keep rolling even if we were out of batteries or tapes.

Through the cold, wet night we were shadowed by angry mobs as I let them express their fears and frustrations, sitting in various dhabas. Occasionally, I would remind a sober crowd that media too had its own limitations in resources, and that it was but natural that we would focus on areas like Kedarnath, Sonprayag and Jungle Chatti where destruction was massive and rescue operations were a priority to save lives; where families had been separated within minutes, with some under the massive debris, some lost in the jungles praying fervently for help.

Badrinath brought out an ugly side of disasters like never before. Families complained: "These places in Uttarakhand are holy sites of Hindus. If Muslims had died, the rescue operations would have been much more effective."

In 2006, in the aftermath of Hurrricane Katrina, race and class issues had bred ugly heads in New Orleans with the then federal government accused of a racist response.

But in India, we have seen natural tragedies bridge divides. Having reported on several disasters in the past, from the tsunami to the Leh-Ladakh cloudburst in 2010, and the Sikkim earthquake, I witnessed human fault lines in Badrinath for the first time. In my years of reporting on natural calamities in India, I had not seen people accuse relief operations on communal lines.

In a communally fragile Leh, following the cloudbursts, Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus, all came out by thousands in a moving candlelight march to stand with each other in those tragic hours. But here in Badrinath, people who had not witnessed the dance of death, had loved ones next to them, clean rooms to sleep, and stomachs not empty, were resorting to an angry communal discourse.

Some also complained that they had not been given a seat on some rescue choppers sent out by state governments, since they did not belong to that particular state. Several helicopters had been pressed into relief operations by the administration for evacuation. But there was a lack of ATC coordination and many would hover above and return with fuel spent and minimal rescues.

During the Uttarakhand floods' coverage, as I criss-crossed the length and breadth of the state, I also realised the majority of the affected Indian middle class believed their pain was the only one, the greatest one. In Hemkunt Sahib, we would be branded as 'media dalals' or 'paid media' the moment we would stop recording comments of stranded pilgrims. So what if at least 25 of them had expressed similar sentiments before them, and at the 26th one I would stop to save my battery and tape space for shooting further inside the devastation site.

But the resentment among people towards media has also been building up for reasons that require all of us to look within. Media teams that take to rescue choppers like taxis in Delhi or autos on the streets of Mumbai, or thrust mics into the faces of grieving individuals with no respect for privacy, do journalism no good. And Indian media's annoying trait of chest beating nationalism, encouraged by the middle and upper classes today that take much sense of false pride in their increased purchasing capacities, was bound to have a backlash.

Lessons from Kashmir floods and Nepal quake

Never before have character certificates for the Indian Armed Forces been sought by journalists as was done in the Kashmir floods last year. The Indian Army, Air Force and Navy are disciplined and dedicated institutions that instil a sense of pride in all of us Indians. But for them casualties in any natural calamity would be much higher and the process of rebuilding much slower. But the army does not need clean chits from separatists or anti-India slogan shouting crowds to rescue them when floods strike. Humanity is above all religious, caste, state and nationalist divides. And news channels that wanted those who do not believe in the idea of India, to first express their gratitude and loyalty before being rescued by the armed forces, did much disservice to our brave soldiers.

Some star scribes who flew in from headquarters, preferred to focus on the calamity through aircraft in the skies, acting as the armed forces self anointed PROs and even signing off from 'ground air'.

Local journalists who were wading through chest level waters and capturing the trauma on the ground, ignoring their own families, were not glamorous enough to occupy rundown space in bulletins.

In any disaster, the first 24 to 36 hours are the most crucial ones to save lives. These are also the hours when governments and administrative authorities take time to get their act together and press resources into rescue and relief operations. But in these early hours it is the locals -- the shikarawallas in Kashmir or ordinary Nepali citizens -- who rise above tremendous challenges to pull out endangered lives to safety. Sadly, they are not the heroes in our news stories, at least for the first few days. The spotlight is simply on the uniformed officers or the journalists themselves.

Recalling the media coverage of the killer Haiti earthquake in 2010 that, according to various estimates, killed a lakh to three lakh people, journalist and author Jonathan M Katz writes about the misplaced focus on organised rescue efforts ."The constant media coverage and well-financed, specialised rescue teams created the impression in many viewers'minds that large numbers of people were being saved by outside responders. In fact, according to a report by the French defence ministry's Haiti mission, no more than 211 people were saved by all of the international search-and-rescue efforts combined, in a disaster in which hundreds of thousands were trapped." Katz adds, "Disaster experts routinely note that a vast majority of rescues after an earthquake take place within the first 24 hours, and are almost always done by people from the area using their hands or simple tools. In contrast, the first American search-and-rescue team didn't arrive in Haiti until nearly a full day after the disaster."

nepal-embed-2_050415084506.jpg The rebuilding work done by Nepal's own forces can't be ignored. (Reuters)

For a country like Nepal, where Indian channels, unlike other nations' news stations, are watched closely, it is not of help when you ignore the challenging rebuilding work on the ground being done by the country's own forces and citizens. True, India has shown commendable leadership in relief and rescue operations and Prime Minister Modi has made it the top priority for his government. But humility on the part of news channels would have contributed to the goodwill for India in this hour of crisis. Sadly, we lack the ability to be graceful and modest.

It also does not help when you try turning an issue like 'packed beef product supplies' into a cockfight with another neighbour. Much as we might find it unbelievable, but there are veal and beef eaters among Nepalis too.

And a disaster where death tolls are rising each passing day is definitely not an occasion to tell the world -- We the Indians have saved Nepal. This credit grabbing can wait for another day when people have roofs above their head and a calm night without jolts to sleep.

Course Correction

I do not intend to paint all journalists with the same brush. For many, phones turned into mobile PCOs with desperate calls through the night, of people enquiring from faraway lands, about their missing loved ones. With little or no sleep, media brings to the world stories of death and destruction, not simply for TRPs, but also to ensure that the international community responds in solidarity. But like in all professions, there are rotten apples here too.

Thanks to these wearing-patriotism-on-its-sleeve kinds, stone pelters had an added reason to target security forces during the flood rescue operations in Kashmir. And now the wrath is turned against the Indian media itself on social media. There is the ugly syndrome of 'chest beating Indian-ness ' both across our society and media that reflects societal trends.

Evacuation of Indians who were physically unharmed from Kathmandu airport should not have been the focus of our stories or even the demands of Indians. Evacuation of those fighting death as they lay under the rubble and emergency medical relief to those injured should have been the rightful priority.

It is time for course correction before #GoHomeIndianMedia hashtags overshadow all the good work done by many journalists, who too are mortals, and brave challenges to tell the world stories of those in pain.

Writer

Smita Sharma Smita Sharma @smita_sharma

Journalist. My Idea of Luxury: bean bags, remote, books, music, quiet.

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