Journalism in post-earthquake Nepal: Q&A with Krishna Sapotka

Member of IPI’s national committee says reporters ‘very brave, indeed’

A man holding a brick walks past the collapsed Manang Monastery after the April 25 earthquake in Kathmandu, Nepal May 10, 2015. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

VIENNA, May 20, 2015 – The Nepal earthquake of April 2015, with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale, was the deadliest in the country’s recorded history and caused massive destruction. More than 8,000 people were killed and tens of thousands were left injured, homeless and severely traumatized.

The earthquake and its more than 120 major aftershocks – many reaching a magnitude greater than 5 on the Richter scale, with the largest reaching 7.3 – has seriously devastated a country already struggling economically. While the Nepali government and aid agencies are distributing relief, many remote areas have not yet received sufficient assistance. Journalists, both Nepali and international, are courageously raising awareness by reporting from those areas most badly affected, despite difficult circumstances.

IPI Contributor Elena Pramesberger spoke with Krishna Sapotka, executive director of the freedom1 Forum – a Nepali civil society organisation advocating democracy, human rights and press freedom1 – and a member of IPI’s Nepal National Committee, to learn how Nepali journalists have tried to cover the news while dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake.

IPI: What were you doing when the first earthquake occurred in April?

Sapotka: Since the first earthquake occurred on April 25, a Saturday, my colleagues and I were at home. When we returned to our office in Kathmandu two days later, we were shocked by the amount of devastation in the city. Buildings had collapsed; there was an incredible amount of rubble on the streets and crowds of scared people everywhere who did not know where to go.

Despite all the destruction the situation was not as scary as people in Nepal had expected beforehand. Many thought that as soon as the long expected earthquake occurred, all life would be erased in Kathmandu. Surprisingly, within two or three hours after the earthquake, some transportation and communication services were working again. But people were very much distraught and frightened. There are many people from different parts of the country in Kathmandu and of course everyone was very worried about their families and friends back home. However, given the situation, government agencies as well as other services were working in a rather coordinated manner, and especially “Radio Nepal” was a valuable source of information in the immediate aftermath.

IPI: What are the major challenges in the aftermath of the earthquake?

Sapotka: In general, the continuing aftershocks are a major problem. It is impossible for things to go back to normalcy with these aftershocks occurring on a regular basis. People are not able to recover psychologically because the traumatic experience just keeps repeating itself.

Last Saturday there was another 5.7 magnitude earthquake, and there have been many just as big before. So apart from lacking food and basic services, people are psychologically devastated. It is hard to recover from something so harrowing, but it is particularly hard when it is far from being over. Journalists are confronted with all these problems, too.

IPI: How would you describe the overall situation for other journalists?

Sapotka: Luckily, the freedom1 Forum office has not been damaged too badly and we were able to recover important documents and resume work quickly. However, we set up a provisional work space nearby that we are currently operating from because it is safer than to stay in the building. I do know many colleagues who have not been as fortunate, though, and whose work spaces were completely destroyed, which is, indeed, a great problem.

But even apart from that, circumstances for Nepalese journalists are extremely difficult. They are very brave, indeed. Some of them have lost family members, friends and colleagues, and many of them have had their houses severely damaged or completely destroyed in the earthquake. There is a shortage of food in the mountainous areas of Nepal, and yet journalists are there reporting and raising awareness of the situation inhabitants of these areas are facing. Journalists are carrying out their duties, which I find very much applaudable, given the circumstances.

IPI: Can journalists report freely?

Sapotka: As far as I know, the Nepalese government has not imposed any restrictions. Both Nepalese and international journalists can move around freely in the country and many are reporting from the most badly affected areas.

There was an issue with some Indian journalists who were accused of reporting in a sensationalist manner. It was, however, not the government but the Nepalese people who took offence at their inappropriate questions. On at least one occasion someone was asked “how they felt” while crying about the loss of a family member, which resulted in people calling for Indian media representatives to leave the country. Drone reporting was banned because some foreign journalists were trying to misinterpret things. They are now allowed to film from army helicopters instead. Apart from that journalists are well received and can report freely. Fortunately, even in this state of emergency the government respects our freedom1 of expression.

IPI: What do you think about the government’s response to the earthquake?

Sapotka: Although it is clear that the government was not prepared for an earthquake of this magnitude, they are working in a surprisingly coordinated way. The Nepal Army and other security forces are doing what they can in terms of rescuing people and distributing relief to survivors. Of course, the situation is far from perfect and many people in less accessible areas of the country have not been properly helped and have not received enough relief. From my perspective rescue operations are very coordinated, but there seem to be shortcomings in terms of relief distribution.

However, the major problem that Nepal is facing is in fact reconstruction. With the monsoon season fast approaching the lack of accommodation poses a huge problem and it is of highest importance that people be resettled quickly. At the same time, coming up with a long-term plan to reconstruct buildings and infrastructure is vital for the country’s future.

IPI: What could the international community do to improve the situation for journalists in Nepal?

Sapotka: The most important thing the international community can do is provide assistance with relief distribution. After all, journalists are just as much affected by the overall destruction as everyone else. Apart from relief, something that poses a problem for journalists is reporting from the less accessible areas in Nepal that are badly damaged. It is essential in order to raise awareness, yet difficult since basic infrastructure and goods are lacking. It would be greatly appreciated if journalists were provided with small laptops and tents, or even simpler things such as umbrellas and sleeping bags.