Media in the times of crisis---reporting
on terror, war and disaster Perspective from Nepal
Countries of South Asia, geologists say,
are prone to earthquakes. Their findings have been proved
several times in the past. Tremors of high intensity have
frequently hit the countries in the Himalayan region such
as Nepal, India and Pakistan, taking a heavy toll on human
lives and properties.
Floods precipitated by monsoon rains are
another form of natural disaster annually affecting tens
of millions of people in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. Providing
them relief and shelter becomes a formidable task, attracting
media attention to the works of governmental and non-governmental
organizations. When promptly reported by both print and
broadcasting media, the coverage even assists authorities
in their bid to mobilize resources internally as well as
Journalists covering such natural disasters
face difficulties which also appear natural---like dislocation
of roads and other means of transport and communications.
I have had a memorable experience as a Reuters reporter
assigned to cover devastation caused b~ a major flood in
Nepal in early 1990s. Finding a telephone booth in a remote
village may pose a problem to reporters working on deadlines.
Getting food and access to accomodation can be another challenge.
However, the job of collecting ---and verifying---facts
and figures is not a difficult one. Local residents are
usually willing to help reporters to understand the situation
firsthand. Authorities on the ground also appear ready to
offer background information. There are occasions when government
officials offer extra courtesy to media people in locating
a bus terminal or a telephone kiosk.
Journalists are sometimes invited to join
government ministers for an aerial survey of the areas struck
by earthquakes or paddy fields submerged by flood water.
Places where firefighters are at work---as in New York after
September 11 ---are among the places where journalists get
their basic information without bureaucratic hassles. An
exception is the moment when a worker clearing debris to
rescue men and women refuses to speak to journalists looking
for some mind-boggling quotes.
Wars, and media coverage of them, however,
are a different matter. As is known to all of us present
here, conventional wars are man-made disasters, although
quarrels leading to a particular fight could have their
genesis on the natural resources with concomitant benefits.
World War 11 and the Korean War have now become a part of
the history. Asians since then have not seen full-scale
wars in their neighborhoods.
In South Asia, india and Pakistan have
confronted each other more than once , but these confrontations
are alluded to as some kind of regular skirmishes. Even
a major clash between China and India in 1962 is referred
to only as an armed conflict. The latest fight between India
and Pakistan in Kargil over Kashmir too is not recalled
today as a battle of major significance. True, thousands
of people including soldiers from either side lost their
lives in those battles, but media coverage of them lacked
credibility as most of stories were based on selected official
briefings and 'guided tours of places said to have been
Media coverage of armed struggles in places
like Bosnia and Kosovo, where the number of deaths were
fewer than those in and around Kashmir, has been far more
extensive, and thereby credible. Why is it so ? Is it because
most of the South Asian countries have large populations,
and therefore need not worry about the value of individual
human lives ? Let's hope that this is not the reason, but
let's face the fact that the media coverage of those terrifying
events has been woefully inadequate.
Since wars are man-made disasters information
about them is hard to come by. Those who operate the war
machines and those who supervise such operations have a
traditional tendency to withhold information. They are careful
not only to prevent adversaries from knowing what is going
on inside their camp but also withhold information which
could show their weaknesses, often placing them in the dock,
Reports of atrocities on civilian populations are bound
to spark off a public uproar. This perhaps is the main reason
why commanders of military operations and their civilian
bosses are selective in disseminating information to the
media. They have a visible inclination to play with the
figures on casualties----showing fewer on their side and
higher on the side of their enemies. This is what all of
us are presently watching in the new form of war ----the
war on terrorism.
The fighting is taking place in Afghanistan
but the press briefings about it are being conducted at
the Pentagon in Washington. Of course, affluent newspapers
and television networks have their men and women in different
parts of Afghanistan ---and neighboring Pakistan----but
these reporters' ability to collect accurate information
is severely restricted by commanders of rival belligerent
groups. Journalists who tried to gather and verify information
independently have lost their lives. As is said very often,
ultimately it is the truth which is the first casualty of
Nepal's case in not vastly different.
It has also declared a war on terrorism --
-terrorism of a Communist kind. This landlocked country
on the lap of Himalaya is the latest South Asian nation
facing a Maoist rebellion in the form of a 'people's war'
since early 1996. Over two thousand people, including innocent
civilians, were killed in armed encounters between policemen
and rebels. This number may appear insignificant when compared
with figures reported in India or Sri Lanka ; what one needs
here is to examine the context, size and duration of armed
insurgencies in these three countries.
Nepal government declared a state of emergency
two weeks ago--on November 26---with a public pledge to
wipe out "terrorism" within six months. The constitution
has a provision for emergency which, if approved by parliament
within three months, can be extended by another three months.
Accordingly, units of Royal Nepali Army have been dispatched
to the far-flung districts on the hills. Details of their
actions, however, are narrated by a Ministry of Defense
spokesman, a civilian officer, located in Kathmandu. Journalists
have no other way to verify official versions, publicized
through state-owned radio, television and newspapers.
All civil rights guaranteed by the constitution
stand suspended under emergency orders. A separate law to
curb terrorism has been enforced. This law has imposed restrictions
on the media. Besides, information and communication minister
has promulgated regulations, effectively slapping censorship
on private media. Those who now venture to publish / broadcast
information and pictures without verifying them from army
headquarters are liable to be punished. This has visibly
restricted media persons's initiatives to visit affected
districts for collecting information. There is no alternative
means to address to the public apprehensions about possible
excesses on innocent civilians by security men.
To make the matter worse, the custodian
of citizens' rights, Supreme Court, has also stopped entertaining
writ petitions that challenge unlawful government orders.
In other words, everything is on the hold at least for three
months. Nepal's 11-year-old democracy and free press will
be under threat afterwards. Let me refrain now from elaborating
Adhikary, vice-persident at Nepal Press
Institute, is also a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu.
Tel: 977-1-523154 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org