The national media did not quite capture the calamity of the Kashmir floods
in all its myriad aspects, human, social and political. Reporting was not half as good as that of the local press and social media, says GEETA SESHU. PIX: Local media raising the questions that national media failed to ask.
Posted/Updated Tuesday, Sep 16 01:01:43, 2014
“My aunty lives in indiranagar behind hotel manoranjan. ..they say nobody is coming for evacuation and the water has entered the 2nd storey …they really need help and they have 2 diabetic patients as well in the family…so it’s a humble request to circulate this message or inform any rescuing agency…”
“Help needed..plzhlp in saving lives….place house no.114 indrangrpanthachowk srngr. my dad maqsod Husain alöngvd 3 othrfamilymembrr stuck in flood…wtrlvl z raising contnusly. alreadycrosd 2nd floor”
“#KashmirFloods…..Professor Ashok Koul and his wife need immediadteevacuation..they are stuck up in third floor Indra Nagar…Lane opposite State Bank…Pink Colour House… I request the volunteers to reach ou to them…they are crying out for help…House no C10 Near Mandir”
– From the posts on Facebook seeking help for stranded relatives
A flood that killed around 200 and rendered homeless close to five lakh people, an administration that was clearly missing in action, incredible stories of rescues by ordinary people, including by migrant labourers from Bihar, army efforts at rescue that elicited brickbats from locals and bouquets from those outside the Valley in equal measure – the floods in Kashmir had all the ingredients of multiple stories for a news-hungry media.
Yet, when a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice R. M. Lodha and Justices Kurian Joseph and Rohinton Nariman, termed the floods a ‘calamity’ that deserved a ‘national response’, what was the response of the print media to even this news?
Relegated to a single paragraph news item on the inside pages of course.
But what is more disturbing is that, in the absence of hard facts and information about the extent of the tragedy and despite the need for the ‘national’ response the learned judges were seeking, instead we had propaganda, rumour and the worst kind of jingoistic claptrap.
After the first few days of the death of communication, social media stepped in admirably for the Kashmiri diaspora frantically seeking information about their family and friends (see #kashmirfloods and Kashmir Flood Information Channel). But social media is a double-edged sword and, along with all the messages come the hate propaganda and the Whatsapp messages, jokes and cartoons about Kashmiris ‘realizing’ the importance of the ‘Indian’ army.
As journalist Dilnaz Boga, who narrowly escaped being caught in the floods, says, “The essence of the rescue is getting lost by these provocative posts. Funnily enough, there are posts from people with Kashmiri sounding names saying that reports of people being eaten by dogs is what they deserve!” The comments, she added, were hijacking rescue efforts.
There is still much to report. People are still stranded, the threat of epidemics still looms large and medical attention is non-existent. The national media must take to task the failure and the lack of accountability of both the local administration as well as the central government.
Just a cursory analysis of a week’s coverage of the still unfolding tragedy reveals the inadequacy of the mainstream media response. In the Delhi edition of the country’s leading English-language newspaper The Times of India for instance, the news of the floods in Kashmir was first the lead on September 9, 2014 and systematically slipped to second and third lead, finally reaching the bottom half of the front page every succeeding day thereafter.
The broadcast media hardly fared better with television journalists parachuting in with the army (already facing criticism for using its rescue efforts as a public relations opportunity). Thus far, with few links with local journalists, the media coverage was confined to the rescue of tourists and bureaucrats, mostly by the army.
Kashmiri journalists (Kashmir story the media isn’t telling), rued that there was little or no reportage of the situation on the ground, the parachuting journalists took aerial photographs and television grabs showed youth apparently stoning airforce relief aircraft. Senior journalist Anuradha Bhasin said: “And now they (so called journalists) want us to believe that people stranded in their homes for days and without food and water had collected stones to pelt on choppers, or fished out stones from several feet deep water or found them on their slanting roofs. Only a nincompoop would fall for that. Shame on you electronic media!” Even as several Indian news outlets including Reuters gave accounts of the stoning of helicopters and army trucks.
Facebook posts made fun of journalists who were more eager to pose with the army aircraft rather than report on the rescue efforts. Boga, who is helping to coordinate relief efforts, said, “How could NDTV’s Barkha Dutt tweet that the Kashmiris must be having mixed feelings because they were taking help from the army?”
Upset at the politicisation of the rescue efforts, she adds, “The rescue is such a community effort. Everyone’s out helping others. Doesn’t the media get it?”
Dutt, who can’t seem to get anything right in her enthusiasm to do the story, re-created, with the help of her camera crew, a story on the army rescue of the children at G.B. Pant hospital, complete with a boat full of army folk and a clamber up to the now deserted ward. She asked an army officer how the army picked up the kids and transported them with their incubators, only to be gently corrected by the latter saying that they couldn’t possibly take incubators along on an inflatable raft!
Gaffes from television reporters abounded, as the Hoot reported: Achal Vohra of NDTV reporting from a rescue chopper thrust her mike at women hauled up from rooftops in Srinagar onto the chopper to ask if they were okay and even before they could catch their breath, fired the next salvo:”are you grateful to the army personnel who rescued you?”.
The national news media would have done well to connect with their colleagues in local media outlets. They would then have been able to bring to a larger audience the hair-raising accounts by local journalists, reports in a host of Kashmiri newspapers, websites and blogs like Rising Kashmir, Kashmiri Dispatch and Kashmirwalla.
These reports were an incredible account of live rescues of both journalists themselves as well as the people they brought relief to, and the fact that they had no clue about the safety of their own families, added poignancy to their accounts. Shuja’at Bukhari, editor of Rising Kashmir, put out a Facebook post of his team’s rescue of people at Lal Chowk. The team managed to go to the spot only on September 13, 2014.
Photojournalist Shafat Siddiqui lost his life while covering the floods near the civil secretariat. The website Kashmirwalla said that he contributed his photographs to Pacific Press and Dainik Jagran. Sadly, his family was still under the impression he was safe and got to know of his death from an online media source.
Kashmirwalla, which continues to carry photographs of submerged areas and the needs of the local people for water, food and medicines, reported on the anger of the people at the failure of the administration to reach them. Rising Kashmir has begun asking the pertinent question: Why didn’t the government sound the alert? What was it doing?
The coverage, or lack of it, is reminiscent of the run-up to the exodus of North-East Indians from Pune, Bangalore and Delhi in the wake of the riots in Assam. Then, criticism of the media’s neglect of the issue forced the then CNN-IBN head Rajdeep Sardesai to defend his channel by speaking apologetically of the ‘tyranny of distance’.
The tyranny of distance only affects the Northeast. Kashmir is not neglected by the media. They come rushing in. The problem arises from the kind of reporting they do.