I was standing in line in front of the royal palace gates the first day the condolence books were opened. The gates hadn't opened, but the serpentine gender-segregated lines were already getting longer by the minute. There was a herd of journalists right in front of the gate, hunting in packs. TV cameras were panning down the queue, seemingly on the prowl for a grief-stricken face, tears, a good sound bite.
I have seen hungry parachutists before, but they always kept a respectaful distance from people in sorrow. But the grief vultures that day displayed no sense of propriety, or respect for mourners. Television and still cameramen (and they were almost all men) zoomed in on any teary-eyed face in the line. Right at the front, underneath the parapet, was a teenage girl with tears rimming her eyes, clutching two roses in her hands. The shock and grief she felt at the macabre murders of our entire royal family had overwhelmed her. She averted her face from the prying cameras, but was just too photogenic. A couple of the cameramen brought their lens right up to her cheeks. They pointed the camera downwards, almost touching her shoulders, for an extreme close up of the roses. The next day, major international dailies carried a picture of the girl with tears and roses.
When I saw pictures of grieving men and women in the papers and on television, part of some faraway tragedy, I used to assume the journalists used zoom lenses to get the shots without intruding on a moment of private grief. Now, I wonder. Even as an alert and aware citizen, I could not do anything as I watched the media exploit the sadness and vulnerability of that girl outside Narayanhiti. The anger and humiliation I felt were swamped by immense helplessness in the face of this national tragedy. I couldn't react or retaliate. She couldn't either. A great sense of loss and melancholy overwhelmed me. The closer I came to the gates, the greater the sense of loss, and the greater the impact of the incomprehensible massacre by the crown prince of his family. When my mother-in-law, after acknowledging the finality of the tragedy by signing the visitor's book, came and hugged me and cried, my own floodgates of grief opened. The tears just flowed. An Indian TV crew rushed over for a sound bite. "Can you tell us how you feel?" the reporter asked, mike outstretched and camera rolling. I wanted to tell him to leave us alone, but I couldn't. All I could do was to shake my head vigorously and say with quivering lips: "I'm sorry, I can't speak."
It seems the camera stayed on for some time on my misery-stricken face, because the next day on the hour every hour I saw my sniffling self on Star News. But that wasn't all. I spotted another television journalist who had been talking to a young Nepali girl in jeans across the road and away from the line. He brought the girl to stand amongst us. "We would want you to be in line," he told her in a French-sounding accent. He placed her a couple of people behind me and began to question her as if she were an ordinary mourner waiting to sign the condolence book. After he had got her name, he asked her: "I see you are standing in line, are you a royalist?" Next question: "What do you think about this morning's explanation of the accidental firing of the gun?" After the questions were over, and the reporter had got the sound bite he wanted to hear, the girl moved back across the road and became the bystander she was.
When I watched television that evening, I realised that the man with the strange accent was none other than CNN's Kasra Naji. The footage of the girl he planted in our midst was beamed across the world as an off-the-cuff answer of a mourner waiting to sign the condolence book. Pretending is lying. When the CNN reporter made the girl be what she wasn't, it was lying, it was misrepresentation. When reporters have already made up their minds about the sound bites they want, found a person willing to provide that talking head and then presented it as a "voice from the street", objectivity is flayed, and the message is warped.
I guess this is what happens in any disaster anywhere in the world when parachute reporters from foreign countries swoop in for a piece of juicy action (unfortunately Nepal now can lay claim to the juiciest, most gruesome whodunit in world history), and start speaking with authority without getting a feel of the pulse of the land. Most of what we saw on foreign television (shamefully, our television just played dirges for two weeks) was street scenes from Kathmandu. Anger on the streets. Clean-shaven heads, chanting, "Our king and queen are dearer than our lives!" While the rest of grieving rural Nepal went about their way during this rice-transplanting season, Kathmandu's unrest seemed to represent the entire country. A majority of these reporters did not venture too far from the palace, let alone from Kathmandu. Before the riots on that Mad Monday, droves of motorcycle-riding youths with shaved heads and angry voices were far too interesting. Kathmandu's shaved angry youth gave the foreign media what they were looking for. They knew the wilder their antics, the more attention they could get from reporters. So they went wild whenever they saw TV cameras. Mild anti-monarch, anti-government chanting would thus reach frenzied heights whenever a TV camera was around. The cameras changed reality by simply being there. To the rest of the world Nepalis must have seemed to run amok. Friends and relatives living outside Kathmandu felt extremely concerned for the safety of their loved ones back home.
Then there was the phenomenon of Hind-pali (Nepali-flavoured Hindi). The very people who were chasing Indian journalists on Darbar Marg on Monday afternoon and chanting anti-Zee News slogans seemed to be elbowing each other to get on-camera to answer questions from Indian journalists in Hind-pali. If one were to go by the sound bites from Indian satellite news channels, from politicians to the angry youth on the streets, we seemed to be a Hindi-speaking nation. When the reporter from Star couldn't get a word out of me, he approached another girl in front and asked if she could say something. When she started answering in Nepali, he said: "No in Hindi or English, please." The girl said she couldn't, and the camera moved on. How easy do these reporters want it? The journalists just showed their disrespect, but the biggest losers were viewers around the world.
Rupa Joshi is a jouranlism graduate from the University of Southern California, and is now working in Nepal.