There are no gatekeepers anymore… Things are no longer vetted by the press. They’re vetted by the public.
– Tom Rosenstiel, director, Project for Excellence in Journalism, 1998
There is presumably a distinction between spreading a rumour and reporting a rumour that is being spread. Presumably, also, it is not the kind of idle distinction that can be dispensed with, in the interest of meeting newsroom deadlines. But there was little in the conduct of the daily press during the two days of mid-winter rioting in Kathmandu to differentiate between news reporting and rumour-mongering. Is it that the competitive environment of breaking news makes the media just an accessory to the mass circulation of hearsay in a time of trouble?
This was certainly the impression conveyed by many of the Nepali papers which started the whole drama, as well as the Indian dailies which were not to be found wanting in the ensuing turmoil. While most of the Nepali publications made haste to publicise an unverified statement attributed to a rising Bollywood star whose views ought to have little bearing on the relations between nations, many Indian dailies, especially those based in Delhi, were not slow in fabricating their own version of the unfolding events in Nepal.
It all began on 15 December with the Chitwan Post, a small-town Nepali language newspaper published from Narayanghat, south west of Kathmandu Valley. The paper reported that a section of Chitwan youth had burnt the effigy of the actor, believing that he had expressed dislike towards “Nepal and Nepalis”. In retrospect, it does not look at all bad that the capital’s media exhibited its habitual lethargy in picking up news that originates anywhere outside the
Valley rim. The national dailies played the news all of 10 days later, on 25 December, but the superior status of reporting or editing a daily from the capital does not always translate into professionalism. So, the first reports from Kathmandu all assumed that Hrithik Roshan did express hatred towards Nepal and Nepalis in a STAR Plus interview of 14 December (some also reported that it was Zee that aired the programme, presuming that the channel which was notorious for unsubstantiated ‘anti-Nepal’ coverage a year earlier during the Indian Airlines hijack, must have been the culprit). It was obvious that no one had fact-checked or crosschecked.
Even by the critical second day, the papers had not verified the authenticity of the news they were peddling. There was only a trite attempt at putting in the qualifier ‘alleged’, and a play given to the actor’s denials of any denigration of Nepal and Nepalis. Thereby, the editors left it to readers, after a barrage of near-inflammatory reportage, to decide whether to take a Bollywood upstart on his word or not.
The Kathmandu press did not see it fit to come out openly and say that since they were unable to trace the source of the actor’s anti-Nepal remarks, it ought be treated as a rumour. What had happened was that the gatekeepers of the Nepali media too got caught up in the ultra-nationalist wave of the moment, and perhaps even saw in the unfolding drama the power of their aggressive journalism to shape national events.
The Kathmandu Post, the largest English daily and sister publication of the powerful Nepali daily Kantipur, had this to say in an editorial, “The spontaneous outburst of the students and the youth community against alleged anti-Nepal remarks by an Indian actor goes to show how deeply Nepalis feel about their country and the people.” Ergo, it did not matter that the remarks may not have been uttered by Mr. Roshan at all. Even if unstated, they had the potential to indicate the depth of Nepali nationalism! This was as good as the left leader Bamdev Gautam telling an insistent BBC Nepali interviewer that it did not matter what the actor did or did not say because the people had spoken.
In a later editorial, the Kathmandu Post tried to put up a defence saying that what it had done was “to report the events that took place”, without introspection as to how the national press as a whole (and mostly, of course, the vernacular media) had triggered the events in the first place. It was on this high and self-righteous moral ground of objective reporting that responsible journalism met its nemesis in the newsrooms and editorial desks of Kathmandu.
If the Nepali press was culpable for lighting the match at ground level, the Indian national press played its well-honed part as well, with its casual misreading of the events in ‘faraway’ Nepal. This negligence has affected the Nepali’s image in India and spelt disaster to the smaller country’s economy, in terms of tourism, investments, exports and so on.
As everyone other than some members of the New Delhi press corps accepts, the national Indian media follows a statist and establishmentarian line when it comes to foreign and geo-strategic affairs. And on Nepal, over the past decade, the national press and the incipient satellite channels have been joining the unquestioning drumbeat identifying the kingdom as a willing accessory of the Inter Services Intelligence agency of Pakistan, and as a smuggling conduit deliberately meant to destabilise the Indian nation.
The peaking of this unfair coverage against a hapless Kathmandu, quite incapable of fighting back either with diplomacy or media, came to pass during the extended Indian Airlines hijack drama of December 1999. In particular, the satellite channels got their first taste of made-for-television drama and played it to the hilt with casual coverage of how Nepal as a nation was culpable for the event. That experience, in fact, stoked the anti-Indian xenophobia lurking in the wombs of the Nepali intelligentsia, which again got its outlet with the non-remark by Mr. Roshan.
And so, as rioting began in Kathmandu, the Indian press leapt readily on to its tiresome hobbyhorse of Nepal as an ISI haven remote controlled by the Bombay mafia. While all this may be pleasing to the Indian security establishment, there has to date been no convincing evidence that this ISI link exists to any degree more than other conduits that the Pakistani agency doubtless uses. Also, the ratcheting up of Indian super-nationalism during the Kargil conflict, as loudly proclaimed in India’s first television war, was bound to turn sour on the intelligentsia in neighbouring countries, and Nepal was no exception.
This time around, the major Indian dailies stressed solely the anti-Indian nature of the riots to the exclusion of all the other significant aspects. They failed to take notice of the rapidly changing events on the street, for what began as a violent expression of anger against Hrithik Roshan and things Indian, changed rapidly into a hate campaign against Nepalis of Tarai origin, who, it has to be noted, are not Indians. If anything, then, this was a terrible expression of internal angst where Nepali turned against Nepali due to the lumpenisation of politics in the young democracy.
And it became clear before long that the target of the demonstrators, a not unexpected coming together of the far rightists (who want the king back) and far leftists (who want the king out completely), was the Nepali political establishment. Indeed, it is said that the government of Girija Koirala would have collapsed and an extra-constitutional denouement reached had Madhav Kumar Nepal of the mainstream Left CPN (UML) not come up with a crucial statement of support to the government at the critical hour.
But the media south of the border, in English as well as the vernacular, was hardly bothered about the complexities of politics in the northern kingdom. As most Indian papers and channels prefer to cover Nepal by sending in parachute journalists, no one had the time to tarry around and understand the complexities. Certainly, the reporters chose to remain silent on the changing turn of events, and the public in India got to see nothing but one continuous anti-India agitation. Interestingly, no one thought it worthwhile to report that while there was definitely a lot of vandalism and terrorising of Indians and ‘Indian-looking’ people, there were no deaths reported among these groups. In fact, those who died were individuals caught in the mob violence that the police sought to quell.
There were some attempts to present the “other side” through the columns of friendly Nepal-watchers, but in a sense these were contaminated by the original sin—mostly attempts, often patronising and unconvincing, to explain the reasons for Nepali antagonism towards India. And all of it really meant nothing, because they once again harked back to the weary trail of cultural similarities between Nepal and India, and the bonds of friendship that tie them. The doughty Gurkha’s commitment to defending Indian borders was again dusted off and presented as proof of this very special relationship.
On the whole, it was with remarkable ease and haste that both the Indian media and the Nepali press abandoned the principles of responsible journalism. The Nepali press of course started it all, still wet behind the ears and with many of its firebrand practitioners too young even to have participated in the People’s Movement of 1990. The Indian journalists, with their Delhi-centric uncaring and aloof attitude, chose not to dip into the minutiae of Nepali politics and by presenting a monochromatic vision of the happenings of end-December, did more than its share to tar Nepal and Nepalis.
Hrithik Roshan, certainly, never said that he “disliked Nepal and Nepalis”. But one wonders what conclusion Nepal and Nepalis are to derive vis-à-vis Indian editors and television producers. Meanwhile, at least we are now informed of the esteem in which Mr. Roshan holds Nepal and Nepalis—his domestic help and his personal assistant are both from the Hindu kingdom.