Long after the rubble has been cleared, there remain stories that still must be written. Not just of lives lost, of injuries and damaged structures, but of the fault lines in our societies that show up in the wake of a natural disaster.
For those of us who have witnessed earthquakes in India and reported on them, the coverage of the devastating serial earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria earlier this month brought back many memories. The details are different, but the trajectory of events is similar. As also the aftermath.
The coverage of the earthquake’s impact in southern Turkey and Syria has posed many challenges for the media. Even with the best of technology, how do you report in places with no electricity and poor connectivity, and capture the scale of the tragedy as it unfolds? How do you combine human interest while also respecting people’s right to privacy and dignity in the face of such a disaster? How do you report honestly on the lapses of the government in a country where press freedom has been whittled down drastically?
The challenges that the international, and more so the national media in Turkey have faced carry many lessons for us in India. by Yasemin Giritli İnceoğlu, a visiting professor at the department of media and communications, London School of Economics, makes many useful observations. She points out, for instance, that the “task of the media is not only to publish updates on search and rescue operations, but also to bring out the failures and errors”, and that “journalism cannot be done without asking questions about lack of equipment, water and electricity; journalists have to hold the powers that be accountable.”
Yet, in Turkey – and, as we know, in India during the recent Covid pandemic – journalists are not encouraged to ask such questions. You risk interrogation or even arrest if you do.
While we can debate how much press freedom we have in India, the Turkish press under President Recep Erdogan is far from free. As this points out, the Turkish press was never completely free even under other regimes. Journalists were imprisoned and newspapers critical of the government were shut down.
But today, according to the author, “The destruction of Turkish media has come full circle. Where journalists once sought to expose what the government was up to, now they act at its behest to expose – even to help prosecute – their common ‘opposition.’ These days, if an independent journalist dares to write anything controversial, whether on social media or, say, to a foreign reporter...They will wait out the next 24 hours with trepidation, praying that Twitter trolls...Will not have chosen to make their statement the hysterical target of the day. Why would anyone risk saying anything at all, let alone reporting?”
The consequence of this kind of fear is seen in the way disasters are reported. International media plays out one story, the local media plays out another. While a foreign reporter might quote people saying that help did not arrive in time, a local reporter would be constrained in saying this because it is risky to report anything critical about the government. The people who suffer the consequences of such restricted reporting, of course, are those who are the victims of the disaster.
One of the factors that has emerged in Turkey is the poor quality of construction in some of the cities impacted by the earthquake. We saw the frightening visuals of what would be considered solid brick and concrete structures, collapsing like a pack of cards. of buildings in one of the plushest areas in Gaziantep brings out the reality of shoddy construction, how early warnings were ignored, resulting in huge towers in this locality coming down.
An architect tells the reporter that 65 percent of the building stock in Turkey is at risk. That is a frightening figure. It is also clear from such reports that apart from the builders who could be charged with using poor quality materials for the construction, the corruption in the system that allowed such subpar construction to be passed as safe is also at fault.
Reading this, one cannot help but wonder what would happen in our cities in India in the face of such an earthquake. How many of the scores of rapidly built towers that now dot the urban landscape have features that will prevent them from collapsing as did those buildings in Turkey? Would any of these structures, often built in open violation of land use regulations and environmental rules, survive an earthquake? This is an opportune time for the Indian media to turn its gaze inwards and look at our own earthquake-preparedness.
It is also telling that the Indian media chose to report the story from Turkey only after the government sent aid by way of personnel who could help in the rescue operations and, one presumes, accommodated some media teams. These were the first person reports we read or saw. But there is often a local politics involved when other countries rush to provide humanitarian aid. Were any of the reporters who flew to Turkey to report even aware of this?
Seema Guha, a veteran reporter, filed in the latest issue of Outlook magazine, which incidentally has focused almost entirely on disasters. She writes that when an earthquake struck Nepal in 2015, the government rushed in aid. It also accommodated media crews on the Air Force aircraft that flew in. But within a week of this help being sent, Guha writes, “the appreciation turned into resentment. This had much to do with Indian media’s loud proclamation of New Delhi’s stellar role in the Nepal rescue and relief operations.”
She quotes well-known Nepali journalist Kanak Dixit saying: “The best kind of disaster aid is quiet and altruistic, with no chest-thumping. India’s assistance during the April 2015 earthquake was prompt, but the way the Indian media tried to take credit for India was unnecessary and took away some of the shine of a good act in the eyes of the Nepali public”.
Good advice, but unlikely to be heeded by much of India’s mainstream media that has become “His Master’s Voice” in every sense of the word.
To conclude, please read in Outlook. It is a first-person account by journalist Kavin Mallar of what she experienced as a resident of Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu during and after the 2004 tsunami. The “after” stretched out over many years. Her story reminds us yet again that disasters don’t end once the rubble and the detritus is cleared. They are a continuing saga of suffering and survival at so many levels, and of stories that remain untold.
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