Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Crisis of Representation

Indian media are getting a lot of flak for untruthful, dishonest and unreliable coverage of Nepal

Dharma Adhikari
India has been displaying alternating emotions of cold acknowledgements and warm greetings. Our neighbor is simultaneously enforcing no blockade, a stiff blockade and an eased blockade. The media there seem more or less attuned to the official tapestry of emotions.
The other crisis is thus the crisis of representation.

Harboring insults and feelings for the other at the same time? The Japanese have a word for it: tsundere. Such contradictory emotions of love-hate find a ready vent in teenagers seeking attention or chasing a hidden desire. Psychologists have found a causal link between poor self-esteem and the love-hate phenomenon.

Not too long ago, we (and our media) were all in applause for the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and welcomed him twice. We praised his speeches emphasizing "neighbors first" and soon expressed gratefulness for the humanitarian outpouring following the earthquake and, at the same time, showered vehement scorn on insensitive press coverage of the quake.

The media help to reinforce our inflated national self-worth. We want to be seen, noticed, heard and accepted, not always realizing that the other side seeks the same. But India has always had hegemonic designs against Nepal, we believe, they have no right to interfere in our internal affairs. Nepal has always posed a security threat to India, they insist, why do they foment anti-Indianism? And every low in our relations drags the media into jingoism, risking their loss of objectivity and their manipulation.

Once again, the Indian media are getting a lot of flak for their untruthful, dishonest and unreliable coverage of Nepal and for their omissions. We see Indian hegemony reflected in the distorted reporting of the ongoing crisis.

As I explored in my last piece, Indian media by and large downplayed our constitutional gains, misrepresenting important details on inclusion and citizenship provisions, disproportionately focusing on the violence in Tarai. Selective reporting served overstatement, and generalization became a way of validation ad nauseam. The chorus that ran through a section of the media was pretty sweeping: all Madheshis are ethnically Indian, all of Madhesh is burning, all Madheshis have been rendered stateless, denied citizenship, and barred from holding high constitutional posts, etc.

In particular, the "language" press of the bordering states was spreading official propaganda and lies. The "retirati" op-eds were unequivocally condoning their government's intervention in Nepal in favor of amending the constitution.

Following India's cold acknowledgment of the promulgation of constitution, editorials in elite papers took the official line. Until then, editorials in major newspapers sounded upbeat and some were even congratulatory and urging India to be a close partner with Nepal at her historic juncture.

How could journalists in India continue to be so dangerously ignorant about Nepal? The coverage has once again shown that sections of the Indian media are worse than some of our speculative online portals and tabloids in circulating factual inaccuracies and resorting to anonymous sourcing. You could bend any statistics to drive home your point, and call Ram Baran Yadav the prime minister of Nepal.

Few would expect such naiveté from the world's largest democracy with a long history of free media, and fewer from a country that supposedly enjoys a "special relationship" with her. The Indian media should (and could) have been an exemplar in their pursuit of truth and honesty in covering foreign affairs. An aspiring world power cannot afford misinformation, for its own sake.

The worst example of journalistic letdown by the Indian press in this episode was their total silence, if not apathy, on the "unannounced" blockade of Nepal's transit points by India. They took almost three weeks to wake up to their government's deceptive strategy. International media outlets were not far behind in this. The bitter fact of today's journalism anywhere is that only official announcements make the news, and hardly the legwork. Journalists' sense of "authoritative" is generally limited to officialdom, and rarely involves investigation or observation.

Thanks to the humanitarian crisis at the borders; as it deepened, some conscientious Indian commentators, journalists and opposition party affiliates gradually began to question their government's highhandedness in Nepal. They have hammered away at Modi's misguided policies toward Kathmandu. They must be genuinely concerned about our plight, could not bear the guilt of keeping mum any longer, or perhaps saw an opportunity to score political points by criticizing Modi over his seemingly failed policy decision on Nepal.

With some exceptions, the Indian media appear enamored by their establishment. The question is just how much does Indian foreign policy influences their media behavior or vice versa? Further, how authentic are the Indian media in general in their representation of Nepal?

Expert views go beyond conjectures, but there is very little by way of objective and systematic literature examining the role of media of both countries in covering each other. As Partha Pratim Basu, Shruti Pandalai, Dwaipayan Bose and others have documented, Indian media have traditionally toed the official line in covering foreign affairs, but since the economic liberalization, proliferation of electronic channels, and the erosion of domestic political consensus on foreign policy during the 1990s, the media have become increasingly active players (participants or critical observers), questioning their government's foreign policy decisions, sometimes forcing a course correction. Now Nepal seems to have earned them plenty of questions.

Basu's study, however, showed that actual influence of the Indian press on foreign policy was hard to establish. The media are unable to suggest coherent, imaginative and workable policy alternatives.

These studies also have found that for economic reasons, the corporatist Indian media fans jingoism in foreign policy reporting at the cost of accuracy and credibility. Conflictual debates in electronic channels hardly provide for context and understanding. Worse, foreign policy coverage is also affected by government handouts to journalists, the culture of "paid news" and in recent years by Modi's spell over corporate advertisers.

Despite being one of the largest press systems in the world, only a small number of media outlets cover foreign policy on a regular basis and only around 30 Indian correspondents are based abroad. In fact, one study showed that Indian media coverage was focused overwhelmingly on the US (70 percent), Pakistan (15 percent) and China (10 percent). Except during times of bilateral conflicts, Nepal doesn't even exist in the Indian news map.

Thus our popular perceptions of Indian media are largely shaped by their coverage of past episodes of tensions between the two countries, including the blockade of 1989-90, hijacking of the IC 814 from Tribhuvan International Airport in 1999, riots over Hritik Roshan's remarks on Nepal, and most recently the earthquake.

In essence, the Indian media see Nepal through a narrow security angle, as an unstable, failed state where fake currencies circulate uninhibited, and where ISI agents and Chinese operatives roam freely, where Maoists hatch plots with Naxalites, etc. Stereotypically, it is the land of chaukidars and mercenaries, and sometimes mountaineers and bhaktajans of Sri Pashupatinath.

The news of a forward-looking, inclusive and secular constitution of a federal democratic republic simply contradicts the picture in the head; a problem of cognitive dissonance. Perhaps this explains the discrepancy between the love-and-hate phenomena we talked about earlier.

A bit more self-critical reflexivity in the works of Indian journalists instead of their neo-colonial "othering" of Nepal would help improve the situation. In the long run, Indian outlets should invest in training their journalists in the best practices of foreign policy coverage as well as in educating them about their neighborhood and the world. Of course, Nepali journalists need to take similar steps. Cross-cultural studies of media coverage in both countries will enhance informed understanding about each other. People in both countries need to make a shift by readjusting our cognitive frames.

Let's not forget, love eventually wins in tsundere. The question is when is that eventuality coming?

Published in Republica, 20 October, 2015