Sikkim quake - Where is the story?

BY TERESA REHMAN| IN Media Practice | 22/09/2011
After more than 36 hours a few national TV channels managed to reach Sikkim. Their news capsules were buried between Modi's fast and Ranbir Kapoor's new release. The satellite channels aired from Guwahati were quicker and more pro-active in their res
“Can’t hear, can’t reach” – this was the headline on the front page of Sikkim Express on September 21. The news report spoke of how rescue efforts had been crippled by snapped road links in North Sikkim. “Given the size of North Sikkim and its difficult terrain, the remote areas are still out of the radar and thin information due to collapsed telecommunication services are speaking about the scores of people missing since Sunday (Sept 18, 2011) evening,’’ another report said. Sikkim Reporter read more like a government newsletter with photographs and news of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s visit to the state and a news item about Sikkim Governor B P Singh’s message to maintain calm. It reassured people that the authorities were taking all the necessary steps.
Even four days after the quake news from the epicenter of the massive earthquake was scarce. After more than 36 hours a few channels from the national media managed to reach Sikkim. Their news capsules were buried between Modi’s fast, Sachin Tendulkar’s exploits, 2G scam and Ranbir Kapoor’s new release. On expected lines, Mamata Banerjee, Rahul Gandhi and P Chidambaram’s visit to the state dominated the headlines.
It is a different matter that these national channels kept highlighting that they were the first ones to reach the worst-affected areas. The truth is their coverage hardly differed from each other. Some of the national channels repeatedly showed the landslides on National Highway-31A which delayed the journey of their reporters to the worst-affected Mangan area, the district headquarters of North Sikkim.

In the absence of accurate information at times the news was reduced to a ticker on these channels. The Telegraph (Sept 19) carried a news item showing the collapsed hostel of the Enchey monastery, which was set up 369 years ago in 1642, near Gangtok. The hostel, one of the four such facilities, caved in on Sunday night after the earthquake. The monks have been evacuated. Faint cracks have appeared near the dome of the monastery. However, the satellite channels aired from Guwahati were quicker and more pro-active in their response, though there was much left to be desired in their reporting.

News Live, a satellite channel aired from Guwahati claimed to be the first to reach and telecast live images from Sikkim. Their correspondent sent in initial reports about the landslides on the way, the total breakdown of electricity and water and the lack of medicines in the hospitals. More importantly, they reported that there was panic among the residents as there were rumours of after-shocks and lack of credible information.

 News Live reporters were stranded in a landslide when they were on their way to Sikkim Manipal University. The correspondent said, “We were asked to go on our own by the security personnel. Though there was risk involved we proceeded as we had to do our duty.” NETV carried a poignant story on the implications of this quake. It showed a village and how Sunday’s earthquake had sowed seeds of panic among the villagers. Houses of almost 25 families had developed cracks and the villagers had spent sleepless nights on the streets. They later shifted to a relief camp set up by the Army where they were being provided free food and even milk for their children.

However, these channels aired from Guwahati were more interested in the students and workers from Assam who were residing in Sikkim. They spoke to the students who appealed to their government to make arrangements to bring them back. They reported on a few workers who had succumbed to the earthquake.
'The local channels also had a series of panel discussions on the implications of such an earthquake in Assam, more precisely in Guwahati. Reporters were seen huddling near high-rise apartments in Guwahati trying to find cracks in the buildings and taking sound bites of the agitated residents. A news capsule on DY 365, another Guwahati based channel carried a story on a hoax SMS sent to people in Guwahati predicting an earthquake at a particular time of the year. Such SMSs were allegedly sent by some mobile service providers for their commercial gains, thereby adding to the panic.
Finally on Thursday, four days after the disaster, a national channel claimed that they had managed to reach ground zero – Chungthang on a Pawan Hans helicopter. They showed a bird’s eye view of Teesta Urja hydro-electric project which was badly hit. They showed a school teacher whose school building had collapsed, spoke to the Border Roads Organisation officials about their daunting task and showed the story of a mother, a quake survivor, who had walked for 13 hours in the landslide to reach her child in Gangtok.
Observers feel that the earthquake was under-reported and this has implications for rescue operations. “Where there is no camera, there is no humanitarian intervention,” said Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Medicins Sans Frontieres, who later became the Foreign Minister of France. Unfortunately, earthquake reporting from Sikkim, was confined to hospital scenes, looking for cracks in buildings, politician’s whirlwind visits, clogged roads, aerial views of disaster sites and a few personal stories. Nobody really made an effort to look beyond the debris. It definitely called for more intensive media intervention considering the fact that Sikkim had witnessed an earthquake of 6.8 magnitude leaving over 80 dead and many more untraced.
With time, Sikkim will limp back to normalcy but this has grim implications for the entire Northeastern region which lies in the highest seismic zone and is beyond the national media radar. An indignant activist sent an SMS from one of the worst-hit zones, Chungthang, “The local people are very angry with the state response and media. Last night they were very agitated that the media teams and reports were only focusing on the ITBP and Indian Army. Where is their story? And how does the Indian media manage to do this every time?” writer is a journalist based in Northeast India. She can be reached at 


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