Indian Media and Foreign Relations: Analysing Indian Media’s Recent Coverage of Nepal

 By Mohak Gambhir
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Media and Foreign Relations

A country’s foreign policies impact its cooperation with its international partners on various issues including business and trade, security, disaster management, transnational crime, culture, academics, etc.. While the old ways of conducting international diplomacy lacked transparency and involvement of the masses, today, due to the advent of new communication technologies, the case is different. Global politics has witnessed a growing role being played by media, old and new[1], in recent decades. This role has only gained further importance due to the spread of the internet and social media.[2]

The media was once in the middle of a top-bottom communication hierarchy concerning international relations, where information on matters of bilateral relations and foreign policy was disseminated by the government. Today, it assumes a more independent role regarding the same and is an important non-state actor in global politics, influencing perceptions of people, thereby the foreign policy of any country. Due to the information revolution, the speed with which the news travels about incidents relating to a country’s conduct on the global stage yields great power to the media and can influence any government’s decision-making, especially during crises.

The transparency brought about by such rapid exchange of information about issues that earlier remained behind closed doors, be they negotiations on trade, border disputes or security, has significantly altered the old ways of handling foreign relations. It has made the task of managing public perceptions, domestic and foreign, a lot more complex. Due to the advancement of media,  every individual is now able to closely follow the developments that are taking place in the foreign policy of any country. As a result, governments have to always consider the general public sentiments while conducting such diplomacy. However, diplomacy often needs to be quiet to be effective. This is especially true in case of negotiations on sensitive matters. Media, driven by its pursuit of ratings and profits, mostly opts for the opposite path of sensationalism and noise. This can be counter-productive to the efforts being made by governments which often require cold and calculated quid-pro-quo arrangements to solve complicated disputes without being affected by sentiments.

Indian Media and Nepal

Following the India-Nepal dispute over Kalapani, Lipulekh Pass, and Limpiyadhura, where disagreements over territory resulted in Nepal releasing a new political map of the country as well as deploying police force to patrol the border areas claimed by it, the  Indian news television channels and social media sprung into action, leveling allegations against the Prime Minister of Nepal for prioritising China, as also calling Nepal a puppet of China and practically declaring that Nepal has no agency of itself on the matter.[3] Indian media’s coverage of the dispute and declaring an all-out war on a friendly country of immense importance to India is an example of how media should never act during times of crisis. Instead of creating the right environment for public discourse on the issue, what followed was patronise reporting trying to belittle an important neighbouring state where Indian media is followed by the masses. This kind of reporting perhaps is done by ignoring the fact that, the audience is spread across the borders also, and how this might not go down well with the neighbouring country’s populace. This would be even worse if there is a consensus in Nepal about Indian media’s reporting, on foreign policy issues, being guided by or even tolerated by the Indian government. Even a silent endorsement of such reporting can have adverse effects on long term bilateral relations between India and Nepal as well as with its other neighbours.

Recently, an Indian television news channel ran a story alleging that PM Oli was being ‘honey trapped’ by the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi.[4] Such outrageous reporting breaches all journalistic codes of conduct. While there is little doubt about PM Oli’s closeness to China, ideological and political, personal attacks against a country’s Prime Minister has led, even the rival factions of his own political party who have been demanding his resignation for some time over his mishandling of the pandemic and bad governance, come to his support in defending him and their country’s dignity. The report also led to a blanket ban, now reversed, on all Indian news channels by the cable operators in Nepal, who claimed to have acted out of a sense of national responsibility[5]. Over the last couple months, dozens of reports have been published and aired across various print and television news outlets like Kathmandu Post, Annapurna Express and Kantipur TV, News 24 Nepal etc. respectively. This only expands the reach of fallacies of the Indian media and builds a negative sentiment towards the general public, government and other institutions as well.

This is not the first time the Indian media has been criticised in Nepal over its coverage of an issue. In the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake, Indian media was accused of being insensitive and unprofessional in its conduct during a time like that. Many in Nepal saw Indian media’s coverage of the disaster as a public relations exercise for the Government of India and twitter was trending the #GoHomeIndianMedia.[6] This was in sharp contrast to and undermined the excellent disaster relief work conducted by the Indian Army and India’s National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF).

Looking at Media’s Role from a Different Perspective

That this kind of news reporting has not been rectified by the government points to the fact that media and its role in international politics is still seen from the realist perspective where it is believed that the non-state actors do not hold much power over formulation of foreign policies and the development of bilateral relations. It is vital to view media from other Postmodernist approaches like Constructivism which offer valuable insight into the importance of non-state actors like media and individual citizens and the role of the former plays in constructing perceptions of the latter. Public perception of foreign states should be the prime consideration for any state in its strategies towards its foreign relations.[7]

Conclusion

The media holds great responsibility in playing a constructive role in strengthening ties between two friendly states. At the very least, it is expected not to harm those bilateral relations. The government of India should engage national media, especially television news channels, to make them more responsible and sensitise their way of reporting on delicate foreign policy matters which have bearings on our long-term national security and economic growth. The fact that collective memory and perceptions of people of our neighbouring states will have an important influence on their future policies towards us, should be the guiding principle of our media’s manner of engagement with our foreign partner states.


End-Notes

[1] Old media is generally referred to as radio, television, print media, whereas new media is formed of digital platforms like websites, social networking platforms, blogs, online video platforms etc.

[2] Filiz Coban, “The Role of the Media in International Relations: From the CNN Effect to the Al –Jazeere Effect”, Journal of International Relations and Foreign Policy, Vol. 4, December 2016, https://doi.org/10.15640/jirfp.v4n2a3, Accessed on 17 July 2020.

[3] “He may even claim that Mughal emperor Babur was Nepali: Shiv Sena blasts PM KP Oli, calls him ‘Chinese puppet’”, Timesnow.com, https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/he-may-even-claim-that-mughal-emperor-babur-was-nepali-shiv-sena-blasts-pm-kp-oli-calls-him-chinese-puppet/621793, Accessed on 17 July 2020

[4] Shastri Ramchandram, “Indian Media’s Scandalous Reporting On Nepal Harms Country’s Bilateral Ties”, Outlook India, https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/opinion-medias-scandalous-reporting-on-nepal-harms-indias-bilateral-ties-national-interest/356588 Accessed on 17 July 2020

[5] Anil Giri & Suresh Raj Neupane, “Cable operators ban Indian news channels in response to ‘insulting’ video about prime minister”, The Kathmandu Post, https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/07/09/cable-operators-ban-indian-news-channels-in-response-to-insulting-video-about-prime-minister Accessed on 17 July 2020.

[6] Editorial, “Taking a Hit”, The Kathmandu Post, https://kathmandupost.com/national/2020/07/09/cable-operators-ban-indian-news-channels-in-response-to-insulting-video-about-prime-minister Accessed on 17 July 2020

[7] Filiz Coban, “The Role of the Media in International Relations: From the CNN Effect to the Al –Jazeere Effect”, Journal of International Relations and Foreign Policy, Vol. 4, December 2016, https://doi.org/10.15640/jirfp.v4n2a3, Accessed on 17 July 2020.