Growth and Adaptation

The private media has become phenomenally influential over the past two

decades but it has often struggled to adequately reflect Nepali reality




THE impact of the country’s free

media on its democratic discourse

has steadily grown over the past two

decades. Until briefly after the

restoration of democracy in 1990,

most Nepalis still relied on the state-owned

Radio Nepal, Nepal Television and Gorkhapatra

to get their news. Since then, the reach and

influence of private media has grown to such

phenomenal proportions that the state-owned

media has been all but eclipsed.

In the early 1990s, the new private sector

newspapers were perceived as direct successors

to the weeklies that existed under the

Panchayat as mouthpieces of the then-banned

political parties. (These papers still exist,

though their comparative stature has been in

steady decline.) But very soon, the new

broadsheets came to occupy a position much

more influential and more encompassing than

the old partisan press.

An interesting parallel can be drawn to the

emergence of the penny press in the US in the

mid 19th century when the big-circulation

broadsheets (The New York Times was one)

came into existence. These newspapers quickly

moved beyond and displaced the deeply

partisan, often vituperative political propaganda

that was until then the main source of news.

Advertisements were at the heart of the penny

press. This made newspapers extraordinarily

cheap (hence the penny press), which in turn

made huge circulations possible.

Clearly, in order to appeal to the growing

masses in the rapidly growing cities in the

industrialised world, the papers had to shed

overt political leanings and offer diverse

information and ideas. Similarly, in Nepal,

when press freedom was guaranteed by the

democratic constitution, the stifling shackle of

officialdom was broken; newspapers were

finally able to take up complex stories that were

often irreverent of authority.

Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post were

launched this day 19 years ago. Being without

precedent, there was deep trepidation

regarding their survival. It was a world still

burdened by Panchayat-era journalistic values

(don’t ever question official positions in public

and never talk about the banned political

parties; make no mention of the grievances of

the country’s ethnic groups and never speak of

secularism approvingly).

To many, it wasn’t even clear why the

country needed these new private newspapers.

A puzzled commentator claimed that there was

a foreign hand” behind Kantipur. He also

regretted that some young journalists (this

editor among them) had been misled into

joining these new publications; a move that he

thought would irrevocably damage their

promising careers.

Being a journalist at that time entailed

constant negotiation between the old and

aspirations for the new. The official rank of

figures mentioned in news stories often

determined the prominence with which the

stories were displayed on the pages. Senior desk

hands had to constantly battle with the

protocol-conscious editor Yogesh Upadhyaya,

who at that time headed both Kantipur and the

Post and had worked at the Department of

Information during the Panchayat.

A deeper problem was that of

self-censorship among the staff themselves.

The ghost of 30 years of authoritarianism

continued to haunt society, and the news room

was hardly insular to it. The Panchayat system

taught everyone, not least the journalists, to

fear offending those in positions of authority.

Then, there were confusions about what

precisely constituted news. At a training session

run by a visiting American professor at the

Nepal Press Institute, a Radio Nepal veteran

raised an objection over a Post news report. The

report in question—backed by quotes from

unnamed official sources and background

notes—was a scoop on a new environmental

protection bill that was still in the works. The

news anchor from Radio Nepal argued that the

new private sector papers were compromising

on age-old ethics set by the government media

by writing “premature” stories. News about the

proposed legislation, he declared, should have

been published only after the government

made it public.

With the media in such a difficult state of

transition, it would have been all but natural for

the government to seek to manipulate it. But to

the credit of the first elected Prime Minister

after 1990, Girija Prasad Koirala, and his

Communications Minister Bijaya Gachhedar,

they seldom meddled with the news coverage,

even as they began to be vehemently criticised:

in 1994, for example, when the factional fights

between the pro-Koirala and pro-Bhattarai

camps in the Nepali Congress came to a head.

By this time, the media had totally

transformed the way in which the public

viewed politicians, bureaucrats, the police and,

to some extent, the Army. If the past 20 years of

Nepal’s political life can be described as vibrant

and noisy, these adjectives apply to the media

as well. And, as with our politics, major

weaknesses became evident in the practice of

the new media.

I was a practitioner very much immersed in

the journalism of the 1990s. I joined The

Kathmandu Post when it opened in 1992;

Kantipur and the Post hit the newsstands in

February 1993. The lessons that I have tried to

outline below were not evident to me at the

time; they came to me only in hindsight. And it’s

still a learning process.

Take the example of the Tanakpur

Indo-Nepal accord, which marked a watershed

in pluralistic discourse. During his visit to New

Delhi in December 1991, Prime Minister

Girija Prasad Koirala signed an agreement that

would allow India the use of some Nepali land

to affix the Tanakpur barrage. On his return to

Nepal, the media attacked Koirala. It questioned

whether he had the constitutional

authority to sign a bilateral agreement on sharing

of water resources.

Much of the discourse on Tanakpur was

vicious and ugly. While the newspapers did

push hard in demanding transparency from

public offices, they were not always able to

uphold journalistic objectivity. They

often resorted to the same partisan

polemic that the political parties were using to

attack the prime minister.

Because many reporters in the new

private media themselves had previously

worked for the party papers, they found themselves

quickly agreeing with political leaders

of their liking.

Young reporters usually addressed political

leaders as ‘Dai’ (older brother). Using this term,

which connotes both respect and intimacy,

made politicians feel that these reporters were

harmless youngsters who were sympathetic to

their party and made them more willing to

share information. But the use of this term of

address established a subtle hierarchy in the

relationship, where the young reporter was

expected to uncritically accept the story on

offer. This was one cause for lapses of judgment,

the inability to set aside one’s faculties for that

core journalistic value of skepticism, among

young journalists.

Such weaknesses were evident even after

Tanakpur. It got worse, in fact, during the

coalition era of the mid-1990s, when the

media had a field day bashing Prime Minister

Deuba’s Pajerotantra, the horse-trading in parliament

and the political class’ involvement in

such infamous corruption scandals as Lauda

Air and Dhamija.

Tremendous societal changes were

simultaneously afoot and these too brought

about transformations in the media. Civil

society, for one, emerged as a powerful

actor. The Ninth National Plan recognised nongovernmental

organisations as partners in

national development. Civil society helped

journalists gain subject expertise and a sense of

activist responsibility, and the media-NGO

partnership blossomed, never as much as

during the anti-Arun III campaign.

Officials insisted that the Sankhuwasabhabased

project would mean a great boost to

Nepal’s promising but underdeveloped power

sector. But civil society and the media revealed

that the project would pose a serious threat to

virgin forests and displace indigenous

populations. In addition, they demanded

alternatives to the top-heavy, centrally directed

plans. In November 1996, as a result of this

unrelenting criticism, the World Bank withdrew

its support for the 201-MW Arun III project after

having supported it for 10 long years.

In other areas, the media was unable to

acquit itself as successfully. 1996 marked the

beginning of the ‘People’s War’. For a long time,

the media treated the Maoists as shadowy

creatures who only existed in remote corners of

the country. The coverage of the Maoist

rebellion was in its early stages marked by a lack

of understanding of the larger context. The

press was overwhelmingly urban-centric.

Reporting of the conflict was limited to brief

news stories about particular attacks on police

stations or clashes between Maoist guerillas

and the police. There was hardly any awareness

of who the Maoists were, what they wanted and

how they were implementing a carefully

thought-out strategy.

Kathmandu-based editors and senior

reporters were wary of travelling to the conflictaffected

areas. Those on the ground were

confined by the physical boundaries of their

home districts and this limited their

perspectives. As a result, stories regarding the

Maoists seemed like exotica from far-off places.

It was also to the discredit of the media that

it failed to recognise that the important values

of civilian supremacy were compromised when

the Army refused to follow the orders of the

democratically elected government. Further,

the media also failed to unambiguously criticise

former King Gyanendra when he used the

excuse of the Maoist revolt to gradually

consolidate power in his own hands and

undermine democracy.

That was a period when the Maoists

seemed like a great threat and the political parties

seemed corrupt and ineffectual. There

was confusion all around and the media

too fell victim to it. As a result, it was unable

to take a firm stand on the direction the

country should take.

Gyanendra’s absolute takeover in February

2005 changed this dynamic. Public opinion

swung strongly against the king and his army.

Once the Seven-Party Alliance and the Maoists

signed the 12-point agreement, the media

became an instrument of activism. Kantipur

media house, not without reason, was regarded

as the Ninth Party—alongside the Seven-Party

Alliance and the Maoists.

This was a new role for the media. The free

press and the Federation of Nepali Journalists

did not even exist during the 1990 Jana Andolan

and consequently the media then played no

role in the movement. In 2006, however, the

media fulfilled its new role with great energy. It

worked to stoke mass protests against the

autocratic king. Some of its actions would have

appeared contrary to journalistic ethics if those

had been normal times. A TV channel, for

example, displayed footage from the 1990 mass

movement to inspire people to come out onto

the streets and to keep the rank and file of the

political parties motivated.

Since the 2008 elections, Nepal’s media has

faced new and difficult dilemmas. And because

the ground is so deeply fragmented, the choices

are much more difficult than during the time

when the entire nation was united against an

absolutist king. In a deeply polarised political

landscape, the media too has become

polarised. Journalists are accused of being

biased in favour of one party or another, even as

they may try to judge issues on their inherent

merits and understand nuances.

The media failed to understand the mood

on the ground before the 2008 elections. As a

result, there was great shock when the Maoists

performed so well in them. The media also

failed to understand the depth of Madhesi

grievances and to realise that a potent

new political force was coming into existence.

While the media (like all political parties)

robustly supported the need for inclusion of the

marginalised communities and accepted the

Maoists as a political force after the CA elections,

there are now signs of strong resistance

against progressive values in the media.

The ongoing debate on inclusion, form of

governance and state restructuring will test the

media further. Journalists will need to

keep their heads above murky partisan politics

and instead focus on rigorous empirical

investigation. [The article was first published on February 19, 2012 Democracy Day special edition of The Kathmandu Post.]

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