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Media in the times of crisis---reporting on terror, war and disaster Perspective from Nepal

Drub H. Adhikary

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 internationally

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 affected.

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 war.

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 this point.


Adhikary, vice-persident at Nepal Press Institute, is also a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu. Tel: 977-1-523154 Email: adhikary@journo.wlink.com.np

[December 2001]


 
Copyright©2001. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Nepal Office
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