“Media plays an important role in moulding public opinion and developing better understanding between countries. Objective reporting so as not to jeopardise friendly bilateral relations is therefore desirable,” reads one of the norms of the Journalist Conduct issued by the Press Council of India in 2019.
Not just India, such code of conduct bars journalists from nearly all countries from reporting on matters harming friendly bilateral ties. The media are instead expected to play a positive role in the conduct and formulation of foreign policy. Recent news reports on Nepal by Indian TV channels, according to experts, is a serious breach of the journalist code of conduct, and the Press Council of India should thus take action. Such reports damage bilateral relations instead of contributing to better understanding between the two countries.
An Indian TV news channel had reported on how the Chinese envoy to Nepal was trying to ‘honey trap’ Oli, in what read like a fictional story. This invited outrage not only in Nepal but also India. The Press Council Nepal (PCN) has drawn the attention of its Indian counterpart on the report. The PCN is also closely monitoring the contents of Indian news channels on Nepal. “It would be easy for us to take up the matter with the Indian side if Nepal government filed a complaint with the PCN, which in turn could be forwarded to the Indian Press Council,” said PCN acting chairman Kishor Shrestha. In the past two decades, the number of television stations has mushroomed, posing a challenge to the norms of accuracy, journalistic ethics, and probity. Not only in Nepal, there has been huge criticism of Indian TV stations in India, too.
In the recent case involving the prime minister, discussions are underway in Nepal about what the government can do to counter such fabricated news stories. Nepal has dispatched a protest letter to the Indian government, objecting to the story, but it yet to get a response. Nepali Ambassador to Nepali New Delhi Nilambar Acharya reportedly spoke to the owner of Zee, the offending news station, and reports suggest the station has apologized. But that is insufficient, says the Nepali side.
Ban no solution
Senior journalist Dhurba Hari Adhikari says Nepal can seek legal remedy on such fabricated reports, but the question is: should it? “Our embassy in New Delhi can consult legal experts and file a case against the news channel but it is better to resolve it diplomatically, as the legal battle will be long and costly,” he says. Adhikari says the role of Nepali mission in New Delhi is vital on such issues.
In immediate response, Nepali cable operators decided to ban (later removed) Hindi news channels. As a temporary measure, the ban can be justified, say media experts, but also impractical in the long run.
“Showing your dissatisfaction is a symbolic act. Yet a blanket broadcast ban on Indian television channels is not a long-term solution as their content is also easily available on the web,” says media expert Laxman Datt Pant, who heads Media Action Nepal.
According to Pant, there are three ways to tackle Indian media’s fabricated stories on Nepal. First, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs could take the initiative to start dialogue with Indian authorities. Second, we could communicate with the Indian Press Council and the Broadcasting Authority, arguing the broadcast content violates ethical standards and the two countries’ media laws. And, third, Nepal’s media and Nepal-India relation experts could provide insights on how such fabricated stories hurt bilateral relations in general and the Indian establishment in particular.
In India, private television stations fall under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which is regulates the content on private satellite channels. For the purpose, the ministry has an Inter-Ministerial Committee headed by Additional Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.
The Indian government cannot dictate the content of its television stations as the constitution of India grants them full freedom of speech and expression. But it can seek clarification and urge correction or removal of objectionable content. “Compared to print and other outlets, there is more government control on Indian broadcasting media. In 2016, the Indian government had banned the NDTV for 24 hours. So the Indian government can do something meaningful whenever a broadcast media breaches its norms,” says Media expert and educator Dr Kundan Aryal.
Aryal points to the need for extensive discussions among media persons and other sections of the society about the negative coverage of Indian TV channels. “The problem with Indian news channels is that most of them do not have correspondents here so their observation is weak. They rather depend on high-level sources in New Delhi who often misguide them,” Aryal says.
Nepal can also ask organizations such as the International Federation of Journalists to take up the issue with India. Speaking with AP1HD television, senior journalist P. Kharel said Indian laws bar the media from any reporting that could hamper India’s relations with other countries. So Nepal also has the option of taking up the issue with India at the official level.
Despite objectionable coverage by some India media outlets, Prime Minister KP Oli’s baseless remarks on Nepal-India relations, according to experts, will weaken Nepal’s claim that Indian media are carrying inaccurate stories on Nepal. On July 13, he claimed without any evidence that the birthplace of Lord Ram is in Nepal and not India. Expressing his dissatisfaction over the PM’s remark, Aryal, who once served as PM Oli’s press advisor, said such statements could weaken the country’s position on Indian media coverage of Nepal.
“What sort of a statement was it, anyway? Was PM Oli trying to compete for attention against Indian TV channels?” Aryal questions.