South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

The case of Sita Tamang shows the media needs to exercise caution when it comes to covering conflict-sensitive issues
Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative for children and armed conflict of the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, brings her formidable qualifications to bear on a very delicate responsibility. As the erstwhile chairperson of the Human Rights Commission and the director of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in Sri Lanka, Coomaraswamy is one of few Third World citizens who stride through the global corridors of power with ease.
Of the 4,008 disqualified combatants discharged from temporary cantonments in Nepal, over 3,000 were children. The Maoists claimed the discharges were a result of their magnanimity, while the anti-Maoist coalition of Premier Madhav Kumar Nepal claimed it as the most remarkable achievement of its 13 months in office. UNMIN, too, feels it is a success story for the organisation. Unsurprisingly, Sita Tamang, alias Manju Gurung, was a prize catch for the Security Council, where she made an appearance on 16 June.
It is extremely unlikely that Coomaraswamy was unaware of the potential repercussions of making Sita narrate her story in the full glare of the media eye. The ‘Manju’ alias was tokenism more than anything else, as the ensuing footage and photos of Sita did little to protect the testifier’s identity.
In fact, the way media coverage of this teenage girl from Chitwan unfolded, it became clear that she might have been used as bait to trap the Maoists into fresh controversy. The ambush has been successful: the former insurgents tumbled into the trap when they quizzed and then reportedly threatened Sita last week.
The callousness of Coomaraswamy apart, Sita’s travails also raise questions about the state of conflict-sensitive reporting in Nepal. The cover of the hapless student was very thin to begin with; Himal Khabarpatrika blew it with a lead story and an easily identifiable photograph on the cover page of its latest issue.
The report cannot be categorised as inflammatory. However, in countries where the capacity of the state to protect its citizens is severely limited, the media needs to exercise extra caution. Fact is a powerful weapon and everyone who uses it has the responsibility of making sure that unintended consequences are minimised.
In the fluid situation of Nepal, the media has to improvise as it reports. Before reporting about conflict-sensitive issues, a journalist needs to ask two questions: is the story contributing to conflict escalation? If so, what can be done to de-escalate the conflict without compromising the criteria of accuracy, balance and credibility? The rest follows from the answer.
Perhaps it was not necessary to disclose the identity of the victim; her story would have been equally powerful under an alias. Had the NGO to whom Coomaraswamy probably farmed out the assignment been able to pin the blame upon some individual Maoist commander, the cause of peace and justice would have been better served through naming and shaming. Tales of victimisation may have fascinated the UN Security Council. It did precious little for the cause of truth and reconciliation in a society still struggling to recover from the conflict.
The caretaker government is dysfunctional. The Maoist leadership needs to ensure that no harm comes the way of Sita Tamang, their former comrade-in-arms. This becomes even more important considering she is an easy target for whosoever doesn’t want to see the peace process in Nepal succeed.
Coomaraswamy will be pleased with her success in getting Sita to testify at the UN Security Council in New York. But should anything untoward happen to the girl, history will hold her responsible. At least part of the blame will fall upon the Nepali media, too, for selling Sita’s ‘celebratory’ status for commercial or political gains.
What has been done cannot be undone. Its lessons, however, are for everyone to learn.