Mahatma Gandhi mentioned three major tasks of the press: “One of the objects of the newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments. The third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.” Interestingly, World Press Freedom Index 2020 ranks India 142nd in a list of 180 countries, significantly below Bhutan (67), the Maldives (79) and Nepal (112). Partisan press does not serve as a professional platform, whatever its claim and pretensions. When a claim contradicts facts, the contrast smears sharp rebuke on the disproved boast. India’s South Asian neighbours have relentlessly borne the brunt of the free-wheeling section of its news media as a matter of routine. When it comes to territorial disputes, encroachment, sponsorship and acts of terror, incitement of insurgency and trade blocks, the Indian press sides with the establishment in its perception of patriotic duty. The press chimes in rhyme with whatever the government says and does when dealing with foreign regimes.
Content onslaught Nepal and Nepalis have since decades suffered such onslaught. Unlike Nepalis, who can tune to private radio news bulletins aired by several hundred private radio stations across the country, Indian people are yet to be offered such democratic news service. Earlier this month, the India Today group carried a narrative describing the expansion of Nepal’s international airport as being “enveloped in controversies over alleged corruption, loan extensions, fund stoppage and changing construction companies. Construction companies under Chinese Communist Party (CCP) have often forced incumbent governments to abandon ongoing projects with anyone other than China.” China’s alleged encroachment of Nepal’s territory made news only after the Galwan Valley clashes between India and China in June. No Indian media ever mentioned that New Delhi, citing vague “security” concerns, vehemently opposed tooth and nail Chinese companies being given construction projects anywhere in Nepal’s Terai region. Going by various reports originating within and outside India, the bloody summer in 2020 registered India losing control over some 300 square kilometers of land in the disputed mountainous terrain — some 250 sq km of land in the Depsang Plains and another 50 square kilometers of land in the Pangong Tso. The strategically located Depsang Plains hold vital roads to the Karakoram Pass. “China’s expansionism continues to haunt Nepal,” asserted news, which accused Nepal of helping China and Iran to deceive US sanctions. The Times of India made a shrill sound that China “illegally grabs land in seven districts of Nepal” even as “Prime Minister KP Oli remains mum”. There was also this piece spinning that China had built no less than nine structures in Humla district on the Nepal side of the border. Beijing denied it but offered to hold dialogue with Kathmandu if there were any dispute regarding their common border. In sharp contrast, the Nepal government’s constant efforts these past several months to hold talks with the Indian side regarding especially Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulek were received with lukewarm response from New Delhi. While maintaining mum over its own territorial losses in New Delhi’s dispute with Beijing or the years of stalemate over border disputes with Nepal in scores of segments plus the Kalapani region, the Indian press produced stories filled with pamphlet-like handouts from the establishment. It does not even comment on the inordinate delay Modi is making in receiving the report prepared by a joint Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group. Of late, the Indian press has been crowned with the phraseology “Godi media”— a disparaging term heaped upon the partisan press that lends uncritical support like a lapdog to either side of the political divide. Godi media, or lapdog media, ignores the role of a watchdog of society. As if mocking at much of the mainstream Indian newspapers and TV channels, Asia Times carried MK Bhadrakumar’s analysis this autumn: “Do not allow yourself to be misled by what Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar says. ... US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun candidly disclosed that the US seeks to formalise its closer defence ties with countries of the India-Pacific region - India, Japan and Australia - as something like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation with an aim to counter China.” At an international forum in Singapore in 2018, Modi described the Indo-Pacific region as a natural region, and denied that the Indo-Pacific strategy was directed against any country. To which Bhadrakumar responded: “The Modi government has removed India’s chastity belt and is readying it to be another concubine in the superpower’s harem. Modern history tells us that the Americans are simply incapable of having equal relationships.” Jayashankar’s comments, at an East Asia Summit on November 15, on the need for respecting territorial integrity and sovereignty came in the midst of the bitter border row between India and China in eastern Ladakh and tension in South China Sea and Indo-Pacific. He needs to be more explicit whether this applies to India’s neighbours like Nepal. Would it be too much for the Indian news media to raise this question?
‘Image correction’ Most allegations spilling in the Indian news media sound and rhyme with Nepal’s long standing chronic pain and anguish suffered from New Delhi these past seven decades. Mark my word, Nepal is not without options beyond those generally discussed in public. Indira Gandhi’s infamous Emergency Rule in 1975-77 saw some heroic acts from a section of the Indian press proprietors and editors. Since the censors refused to allow editorials on the draconian Emergency, newspapers filled the space with the contents as to how the Ramayana and the Mahabharata originated, fossils of the ape man and the antiquity of historical sites like Harppa and Mohenjo Daro. It was an effective way of registering protest and slighting the existing draconian press censorship prevailing at the time across India. Shortly after the 19-month infamous Emergency rule was lifted in 1977, a hurriedly cobbled Janata Party won a landslide majority to install a government under Prime Minister Morarji Desai. Media, merchandise hawkers and mass leaders make an interesting pack. They sometimes work together and, on other occasions, they look in different directions. Not infrequently they engage in scratching each other’s back based on expediency. Embarrassed by the existing state of press affairs, the Narendra Modi government wants to improve the largest democracy’s ranking on various global indices, including press freedom. Its plan includes “deeper engagement with the agencies issuing them”. Bhutan, Nepal and the Maldives could be of supporting advice in at least the issue pertaining to press freedom. Here, no bitter pill is intended.
(Professor Kharel specialises in political communication.)