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Why National Media Turned A Blind Eye To Cyclone FANI & Its Aftermath In Odisha


14 May 2019

Shailaja Mohapatra


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Bhubaneswar: At 8 am on May 3, extremely severe cyclonic storm ‘FANI’ made landfall in Odisha coast and left behind a trail of destruction in the State. At the same time, election season was in full swing in India. Instead of caring about the millions of people who were in the way of the Cyclone, national media assumed that people were apparently eager to know whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi eats mangoes, which politician is spewing hatred on minorities and what is the campaign schedule of big shots. So, they chose to show exactly that.

During the time of landfall, apart from two English news channels- CNN-News18 and NDTV- that were showing the process, no other channel (English or Hindi) had the slightest mention of the impending disaster. Due to connectivity issues, OMMCOM NEWS was not able to track the satellite channels after 8:30 am. Later in the day, NDTV India did an exclusive bulletin in ‘Ravish Ki Report’ talking about the Cyclone’s impact in Odisha. While there are several national channels, the extent of coverage of the high-intensity calamity was minimal and dismal.

“It shows our misplaced priorities. We are so obsessed with elections that we forgot the whole of Odisha, once the elections got over in the State on April 29. If Fani had occurred in Odisha during the elections, we might have given it more attention,” said Rajdeep Sardesai, senior journalist and consulting editor of India Today Group.

Another plausible explaination behind national media's ignorance might be the fact that none of the national news channels have their bureaus in Odisha, said a senior journalist of the State. "A few years back, there were 6-7 national channel bureaus in Bhubaneswar. Now, there are none. Sending a team from Delhi to cover a natural calamity in Odisha means additional expenses. On the other hand, a studio debate is cheaper and more sensational," the scribe remarked.

Meanwhile, international channels CNN, Al Jazeera and DW News carried timely bulletins and showed visuals of the natural calamity. They even termed FANI as ‘Category 4 Hurricane’ to explain its severity to their viewers.

Veteran journalist Sandeep Sahu, who helped a BBC team visit ground zero after the Cyclone said, “While our national media did not even care to put a scroll about the natural disaster on their screens, international media made it a point to report from the spot. When I was visiting Puri and other affected areas, I did not see a single reporter from national news channels.”

Within twenty four hours of Cyclone FANI’s landfall in Puri, New York Times published an article- “How Do You Save a Million People From a Cyclone? Ask a Poor State in India”. The report that was widely shared on social media highlighted State Government’s efforts to evacuate over 10 lakh people to safety before the extremely severe cyclonic storm hit the Odisha coast. Interestingly, many people who shared this article posted, “Why did we come to know of this from an international media website? Where was national media?”

Things went further downhill on Saturday (May 4) when Hindustan Times published, “The impact of FANI was felt across India, particularly on parts of West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Jharkhand.” While lives had been lost, trees and electric poles uprooted, mobile towers damaged and houses reduced to the ground, this leading national daily chose to ignore ‘Odisha’ from its intro.

Later, editor of HT Sukumar Ranganathan tweeted an apology. He wrote, “I am sorry that the flap (page 1 plus of HT) left out Odisha in the intro, which is a huge blunder. The front page of the paper says it correctly, but that’s small consolation.”

Amidst all this, regional media channels in Odisha also took a toll. While the reporters were braving the strong winds and reporting from the ground till 8 am on Cyclone day, the eye of the storm passed through the capital city in the afternoon causing massive disruption to mobile towers and communicating antennas. This resulted in complete loss of signal of leading Odia news channels and some even remained unavailable for two whole days.

Meanwhile, Odias residing in other States were getting anxious and panicky. With regional channels not getting signal and network connectivity gone for a toss, these people were left with no means for communicating with their families back in Odisha. They were heavily reliant on national channels to find out whether the storm had passed Odisha, but they were left disappointed as reportage was minimal. For 2-3 days, digital media reports were their only hope.

In Odisha, coastal districts were left in shambles. Food, water and cash became major problems without electricity. The rising heat and humidity did not help either. Normalcy seemed like a far-off dream. Non-resident Odias took to social media to vent their frustration. “Is the national media even doing its job?”, many asked. On the other hand, people in Odisha were not surprised. “We have always been overlooked, haven’t we? We are just a vote bank,” a youth said.

However, when Modi visited Odisha for an aerial survey on May 6, all cameras followed him. That was probably the only continuous coverage that the State got. Currently, stories on relief and restoration work have found their way into websites of Times of India, India Today, News18, The Hindu, NDTV and others via wire agencies. But, national TV channels still pay no attention. While Mirror Now and India Ahead did carry few follow-up stories, the screens largely continued to keep mum and highlight only election-based packages. In the meantime, 64 deaths have already been reported from the State and Puri continues to lurch in the dark.

Sardesai admits, “If Odisha had received the deserved coverage, like Kerala got last year during the floods, the pace of relief and restoration work would have certainly increased. The lack of reportage also affected the accountability of government in restoring facilities.”

“The only possible explanation behind the ignorance of national media is that Odisha is not close to Delhi. If a place is close to Delhi, it gets attention. We, as national media, have completely failed in a way as parts of the country are falling off the map,” he concluded.

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Rajdeep Sardesai, Consulting Editor, India Today