JALESHWAR. Port-au-Prince is a long way from Mahottari. In the central Tarai, foreign countries have only two generic names - Arab and Malaysia. Everyone in West Asia is in Arabeea, and all workers in Southeast Asia are Malaysians.
When Nepali television channels began to show scenes of devastation from Haiti last week, few knew where the place was and what it meant for them. Newspapers from Kathmandu too didn't provide much detail beyond the information that Nepali peacekeepers were safe. For much of the Nepali media, Haiti might as well have been on some other planet.
But if a similar tragedy hit Nepal, would news reach Haiti and the rest of the planet? The answer isn't very reassuring.
The Sagarmatha Satellite Earth Station at Thankot is the sole link Kathmandu Valley has with the outside world. Forget an earthquake, even if something on a smaller scale - a fire, a storm, a terrorist attack or sabotage - were to strike this facility, all such communication would come to a halt. Every locality has FM radio stations, but not many would be in a position to reassure panicky populations when (not if) a big earthquake does hit the capital. If land and air routes are blocked, the desperation will be much worse.
The news from Port-au-Prince is depressing. At the last count, 150,000 bodies have been discovered; over a dozen were those of journalists. It will take at least a month for any newspaper to resume publication. Nevertheless, at least two radio stations are back on air. International assistance to retrieve and repair damaged media equipment has begun to arrive. Survivors are hoping that the Haitian media will keep an eye on donor funds because no other institution will be in a position to do so for quite a while. The projected cost of restoration in Haiti is $10 billion over the next 10 years.
The international press is often quick to descend on the sites of natural or manmade disasters, but apart from a few follow-up stories, most depart as soon as they can. A BBC correspondent once termed this "Oh my god dying babies in the streets" journalism. Such an approach has its uses in the aftermath of a catastrophe to help jolt the conscience of the comfortable in far-off places. However, it is the local media that has to help the affected population endure the tragedy and get on with life.
Disaster journalism needs to go beyond the what, when, who, why, where and how of reporting and concentrate on the mechanisms of coping. Press coverage has to play a therapeutic role in healing afflicted communities. This is where most mediapersons falter: trained as they are in digging up dirt; they often miss the real stories of victims helping each other, the catharsis of sharing in suffering and the fortitude of people faced with unimaginable tragedies. Holding government and donor agencies to account is important, as is damage assessment and lessons learned. The immediate need is to help people make sense of such tragedies.
Mahatma Gandhi attributed the suffering caused by the devastating Bihar/Nepal earthquake of 1934 to divine chastisement for India's failure to eradicate the morally abhorrent practice of untouchability. He was rebuked for his fatalism, but the Mahatma had merely used a tragedy to convey a social message: the earthquake couldn't have been undone by any scientific explanation.
Perhaps such a rationalisation was better than shifting the guilt on colonialists, as is being done in Haiti. When Nepal's turn comes, the media would be well advised to leave the blame game alone until after the dust settles.