[Commentary] Scope for more nuanced reporting by media on the Brahmaputra river basin

  • A recent study on media coverage of the Brahmaputra river basin shows substantial media attention on disasters (floods and erosion) in India and Bangladesh and infrastructure development in the river basin.
  • The low number of science articles implied the lack of science-based reporting in the basin. There is limited coverage on the theme of research and data sharing.
  • Reporting by media can be more nuanced and look beyond conflicts and controversies to highlight the politics of why and how the Brahmaputra river basin is in a status quo, write the authors of this commentary.
  • The views in the commentary are that of the authors.

The Yarlung Tsangpo-Brahmaputra-Jamuna River Basin (BRB) embraces the unique geography of the Hindu Kush Himalayas, from high altitude Tibet Autonomous region to flood plains in Assam (India) and Bangladesh. The river has a massive hydropower potential, veneering strong social and cultural linkages with the basin communities in the four riparian countries (China, India, Bhutan, and Bangladesh).

Water conflicts and geopolitical disputes mar the Brahmaputra river basin, mainly due to historical border issues (China and India), unilateral decision-making (China and India) and varying development agendas (China, India, and Bangladesh) shaped and influenced by a multitude of state and non-state actors.

Media is an essential actor, reporting and framing the narratives of conflict and cooperation in the BRB. Media reporting influences the public agenda and shapes public debates, particularly in BRB, as there is limited research at the basin level. Sometimes media reporting leads to myths and controversies, resulting in accusations among the riparian states and exhibiting chauvinistic assertiveness in protecting territorial sovereignty and water rights.

Understanding what media reports on the BRB and the emerging trends and narratives that influence public debates are essential. Moreover, a systematic understanding of the role of media in shaping the narrative around the Brahmaputra river basin is missing.

We analysed 2437 newspaper articles published between 2010 and 2020 to capture how media reports influence communities living and affected in the BRB. We used the criteria such as the percentage of readership, circulation, reputation, as well as quality of journalism to select ten newspapers: India (four), Bangladesh (three), China (two), and Bhutan (one), ranging from English dailies to local newspapers.

Guwahati city in Assam along the banks of Brahmaputra. Photo by Arnab Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons.
Guwahati city in Assam along the banks of Brahmaputra. Photo by Arnab Ganguly/Wikimedia Commons.

What are newspapers reporting?

Three analysis points are critical to understanding what has been reported in the BRB. First, our analysis shows that the BRB was in the news, especially in 2013, 2015, and 2017.

The spike in media coverage in 2013 is due to the border standoff in Depsang. In 2014, India saw a regime change from the NDA (coalition of right-wing political parties) government replacing the UPA (coalition of predominantly centre-left political parties) government. The regime change resulted in initial dialogues with the other riparian and neighbouring countries, raising hopes for water cooperation and augmenting the reporting between 2014 and 2015.

Following the Doklam standoff in 2017 between India and China, the hydrological data sharing between the nations was compromised. Moreover, the BRB witnessed a major annual flooding event in India (Assam) and Bangladesh, along with flooding across South Asian Rivers – including the Ganges and the Meghna, showing the increase in reporting on the BRB.

Frequency of reporting on the Brahmaputra river basin in ten newspapers ranging from English dailies to local newspapers: India (four), Bangladesh (three), China (two), and Bhutan (one). Chart by the authors.
Frequency of reporting on the Brahmaputra river basin in ten newspapers ranging from English dailies to local newspapers: India (four), Bangladesh (three), China (two), and Bhutan (one). Chart by the authors.

In the study, we noted that newspaper articles ranged from the main story, opinion pieces, science articles and reports. The number of science articles was scanty, implying the lack of science-based reporting in the basin.

The source of information and data were also heavily inclined towards the government and allied category, followed by state-sponsored academic institutions. This indicates that non-state actors (civil society organizations and community-based organisations) had limited opportunities to share their concerns. The narrative was dominated by government bureaucracy and supporting technocrats. Hence, the media spreads the narrative the government wants the public to know.

Newspaper reports covered various themes and topics essential to the BRB. However, we noted that most reports captured post-event press news, primarily dominated by disasters (floods and erosion) in India and Bangladesh. The newspaper reports captured issues related to flood impacts and responses, where stories from the make-shift relief camps, provision of food, drinking water and medicines were included. The disaster theme also captured accounts of negligence, corruption, speculation of wrong-doing, and outright accusation of lack of government efforts at the community level.

Besides the coverage of flood impacts, newspaper reports have substantially captured the issue of infrastructure development (particularly hydropower and embankments) in the BRB. The issue of mistrust between China and India is reported, along with India’s speculation and constantly wary of China’s river diversion plans for dam construction, threatening India’s water rights. On the contrary, reports from Chinese media present the narrative that hydropower dams are run-of-the-river and will not have adverse impacts.

Our analysis also suggests there is limited coverage on the theme of research and data sharing. Sub-topics within research only captured hydrology, disaster, flood management, and hydropower development, along with a few articles calling for improved disaster governance in Bangladesh and India. Data sharing was extensively discussed in media reports during the 2017 Doklam standoff when China did not share the hydrological data with India. Media reports also captured stories of how data sharing reconvened in 2018.

Chart by the authors.
Chart by the authors.

Where do we go from here?

Most newspaper articles present conflicts and disputes in the BRB, ranging from issues of water security, data exchange, water rights and sovereignty and infrastructure development. Even reporting on annual floods is often supplemented with a conflict between citizens and the state or the riparian states. The BRB riparian states have a shared history with cultural, social, and spiritual connections. However, these common grounds do not find much space in the media reporting. Specific media reports have promoted a false narrative of ‘water wars’ and created a geopolitical environment of scaremongering (Warner & Vij, 2022).

Read more: Sustainability of Brahmaputra basin needs transboundary cooperation

The analysis shows that the reporting on stakeholder cooperation at track 3, 2, and 1.5 levels is very sparse and limited. Diplomatic efforts by the concerned governments are called Track 1 diplomacy (Nishat & Faisal, 2000). Track 1.5 is senior bureaucrats of the concerned governments interacting to deliberate on an issue of concern. Track 2 and 3 diplomacy refers ‘to a broad range of unofficial contacts and interaction aimed at resolving conflicts, both internationally and within states’ (Montville, 1991).

Discussing conflicts can be an ‘easy sales pitch’, although it acts as a catalyst for dormant disputes to become active. Certain media houses are organised to pursue profits, and conflict-oriented discourse often finds a larger audience. We argue that reporting can be more nuanced, and reporters should present the politics of why and how BRB is in a status quo, being such a critical resource in the region. Such a status quo prevents developing and implementing basin-level water and climate adaptation plans, further exacerbating the impacts of climate change. Further, environmental reporters can explain the plurality of interests of the riparians instead of following the trends of post-truth politics. Due to the sensational reporting style, academics, state actors, and other policy actors are skeptical of including media in diplomacy and sharing objective messaging with the public. Media can play a critical role in understanding and raising the local voices that go unheard in the federal policy circles.

The research findings were discussed at the Science Communication for Water Diplomacy in the Brahmaputra workshop in June, 2022. 

Sumit Vij is a senior researcher at the Institute for Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva. Additional inputs by Arundhati Deka (Fellow, Climate Group, India), Natasha Hazarika (Post-Doctoral Fellow, IIT-Guwahati) and Anamika Barua (Professor, IIT-Guwahati).


Banner image: A man on a boat during sunset on the Brahmaputra river in Assam. Photo from Unsplash.

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