Oct 18, 2011

Whose Responsibility is the national image?


More than a year ago when prime ministerial elections were going on, I analyzed newspaper reports of Nepal’s political situation for a class project. After nine rounds of ballot, Ramchandra Poudyal had effectively created a stalemate by neither gathering enough votes to be elected, nor giving up his candidacy. At that point, I wanted to find out which media was supportive of the political situation of Nepal, and which media was critical. I expected to find supportive points of view and constructive criticism from national media and deprecating or dismissive points of view in international media.

I collected 17 articles and categorized them into three different groups: Nepali, Neutral Non Nepali, and Stakeholders. The first category contained newspapers from Nepal. The second category contained independent news agencies like Reuters and AFP, and newspapers based in places like US, France and Hong Kong that have mid to low interest in the political affairs of Nepal. Stakeholders were based on sources that had a high level of interest in Nepal. This includes news sources from India, China, and UN. I present here only the results of the analysis without its tedious parts like coding and methods.
Most newspapers expressed mixed views, with some supportive and mostly critical viewpoints. The general trend was very pessimistic. There were entire articles without a single positive phrase. Very few articles were completely neutral.

Contrary to my expectation, I found Nepali media to be much more critical of the situation than international newspapers. In fact, Nepali writers were the ones who employed the most negative and deprecating adjectives to describe the scenario. Kanak Mani Dixit, in an article for Republica, called Nepal a “floundering” country, and derided its “escalating violence, criminality, and impunity”. The supportive phrases were few and far between, and seemed more like backhanded complements rather than full fledged praise. For example, the rebels might, at some point “submit to the dictates of peace” and “save themselves from their own lethal obduracy”. Here, negative words like dictates, lethal, and obduracy appear in the few phrases that are supportive in the entire article. While eight such backhanded complements were found in the article, eighteen distinctly pessimistic sentences were found. This article was representative of the other Nepali articles.

In contrast, I found Neutral Non Nepali media to be more or less impartial. Some were satisfied with using neutral terms like “political impasse” and “situation.” Others did give negative terms to Nepal, but also gave uniformly negative terms to all nations involved. A Hong Kong based news source stated that Nepal was in a “political paralysis” with “few signs that the crisis will end” but it also stated that India and China were “meddling in Nepal” and “India’s own bungling” was the reason it lost its clout in Nepal. This article also accused China of financing bribery scams in Nepal.

Articles from stakeholder nations were critical of the situation. A report in Frontier India depicted the leaders as incompetent, as they “failed” to win the presidential elections. The same article framed the situation in dire terms like “constitutional crisis” and “deep economic distress” from which the leaders were “unable to rescue” Nepal. Pakistani newspaper Dawn was the most vocal in its disapproval, as every sentence was peppered with phrases like “collapsed government”, “damaging leadership vacuum”, “weak law enforcement” and “mounting legislative backlog” among many others.

Though ostensibly writing about the political situation of Nepal, stakeholders used the opportunity to present a rosy picture of their own involvement in Nepal. To achieve this effect, they used neutral words to describe the opposition they received. For example, an article from Outlook India described in warm tones how “hundreds” of people had gathered to welcome the Indian ambassador to Nepal, who inaugurated several projects. The article discusses India’s positive contribution to Nepal and wishes for a “prosperous, peaceful and stable” Nepal. It also mentions India’s large donations to the project, implying that the protests against India are unfair. This report would have been unremarkable, except that it was a report of protest against the Indian Ambassador’s visit to Nepal. However, only the first two sentence talk about the protests, stating that a few Nepali Maoists “waved black flags” in protest of the Indian ambassador. The use of the word “waving” in conjunction with the black flags provides a very mild picture of the situation (As we all know, nobody simply “waves” black flags in Nepal, the protests were much more violent according to other media sources).

A trend of depicting past political achievement of Nepal in less than flattering words was noticed across all newspapers, whether domestic or international. For example, though ostensibly writing about Nepal’s political impasse, writers often took the opportunity to drag Nepal’s poverty into the limelight and foist it in the article. Nepal was labeled “one of the world’s poorest countries” by a Hong Kong source, and a “troubled young republic” in a Pakistani source. Positive events like the peaceful end of monarchy and successful negotiation with rebels, that actually formed a background to the situation were downplayed in favor of age old clichéd labels that depicted Nepal in a poor light. For example, a Qatar based newspaper termed the end of monarchy in Nepal “abolished”, ignoring the event’s importance as a major political achievement of Nepali people. Yubaraj Ghimire, writing for Indian Express, described the elections that followed simply as “changes” instead of recognizing their historic significance. Instead, western nations are glorified and labeled “Western Powers” by Kanak Mani Dixit, though they could easily have been given neutral terms like Western nations.

I had always believed that Nepal is portrayed in a poor light in international media. This turned out to be only partly true: neutral international media tended to highlight the permanent problems of Nepal like poverty, and mostly abstained from passing judgment on the current chaotic scenario. The stakeholders were mostly scathing, and their occasional neutrality was deceptive because they wanted to cover up their own negative points. Such neutrality needs be taken with a grain of salt and careful analysis is needed to ascertain the vested interest in neutrality.

In the end, Nepal’s negative image in international media is overshadowed by the larger truth of Nepal’s negative image in its own media. Though this research is one year old, I am pretty sure that the results would not be different if a contemporary study was carried out, as nothing has happened to change the attitudes of national and international writers. To bring about a positive change to this situation, we, Nepali writers, should strive for a more positive tone in our own media as the first step towards fighting pervasive negativism. Granted, it is not easy it be optimistic in times like this, but mass media can not only disseminate but also create information and attitudes, and consistently negative expressions in the mass media might be one of the factors creating pessimism in the general public today. Instead, writers should always be careful of the mood and tone that they create when reporting such sensitive issues. It is not possible to completely cheerful about the present political situation, but it is surely possible to tone the pessimism down and be more neutral, following the examples of neutral international media, and utilize every opportunity to highlight the considerable political achievements of Nepali people.


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