Thursday, August 3, 2006

A Nepali Journalist Abroad: OhMyNews

The followed interview, conducted by the Kathmandu-based journalist Deepak Adhikari, appeared last Sunday (July 30/06) in OhMyNews, the Seoul, South Korea-based Cit-J Website:

Dharma Adhikari is a Nepali journalist currently teaching at Georgia Southern University. On July 15, Adhikari won the prestigious South Asian Journalism Award for "Outstanding editorial/op-ed/commentary" on the basis of an in-depth analysis of current events in Nepal, "The Reversal of Democracy in Nepal," which was published in Counterpunch on March 26, 2005.

In Nepal, Adhikari worked for Nepal Samacharpatra, a daily published in Kathmandu but read throughout the country, for about three years, since its launch in 1995. Although he was given the designation of something called senior editor, he mainly looked after the international desk and coordinated the newsroom in the daily.

Adhikari earned a Fulbright Scholarship in 1998 and went to the United States to study journalism at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he obtained a Master's and a Ph.D. His doctoral dissertation examined the life and times of Bharat Dutta Koirala, a prominent Nepali journalist who won the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award.

Currently, he is working on a biography of Koirala, who is considered the father of Nepali development journalism. He lives in Statesboro, Georgia, with his wife, son, and daughter and runs

You worked for the Nepali-language daily Nepal Samacharpatra and Sadhana digest. Now you write in English. How is writing in English different from Nepali?
Actually, I began my journalistic career writing for English-language publications like the Rising Nepal and Kathmandu Review. English was "the" language during my school days. I studied in an English-medium school in northeastern India where I was born and raised. But I always yearned for literacy in my own native language of Nepali, which was not taught in the school I attended. When my family had to flee India to escape a persecution against Nepalis in the early 1980s, I got the chance to sharpen my Nepali. As a journalist, I wrote in both languages. I contributed articles to The Kathmandu Post and The Rising Nepal even as I wrote for Sadhana that I edited and later Samacharpatra. I felt that the vernacular press -- because it has the maximum impact on the general public -- would benefit enormously if it could attract more journalists with proficiency in English. English does expand our horizons mainly because it offers wider options in sourcing and content, and gives us the ability to transcend our constricted communicative practices borne of the geographically less-widespread languages like Nepali.

I don't see any significant difference between writing in English and Nepali. The 4Cs of reporting and writing we often talk about -- conceiving story ideas, collecting information, constructing the story, and finally correcting the story -- apply to any writing process, in any language. The difference is more of context than of process. Obviously, writing in English, a second-language, can prove demanding. There are many cultural nuances to address. And until you blend with the natives and see through their eyes, such nuances don't become as apparent. But resource-wise, and if you already have some command of the English language, writing in English may not be that arduous. Most of the great samples of journalistic writings are in English and it helps to emulate some bylines so as to perfect one's style and approach. Writing in English can also be much more fun than writing in Nepali. Since it is an alien language, it is a path toward self-discovery; it can spark the curiosity needed of a writer. Personally, I believe that the strength of a good journalist/writer lies in constant practice, and rewriting, rather than just writing, no matter what the language.

How is your journalistic experience in Nepal different from the practices in the U.S.?
The basic journalistic values, such as balance, fairness, impartiality, accuracy, relevance, are more or less embraced in most countries. To a large measure, this is true of journalistic story structures and processes also. What is important to know is how and why our approaches to such concepts are confounded by our own geography, politics, economy, workplace and so forth.

While in Nepal, I worked in a politically controlled, geographically isolated, and economically frail environment. The workplace had to cope with bureaucratic and resource limitations. But that did not matter much on a day-to-day basis. Getting the story did. Nepal provided me many opportunities in legwork. "Being out there" was not just an option; it was a reality. I learned by doing; worked under one of the most difficult material circumstances anywhere in the world, and often witnessed the gravest of human conditions in a developing country. Such rough settings, in the end, help you. You become experienced not only professionally, but also in a humane way. Many Western journalists would love to have a reporting trip to Nepal in their resume, but I spent most of my journalistic career there.

American practices are distinct in many ways. Compared to Germany or France, or for that matter Nepal, more working journalists in the United States are formally trained in journalism schools. Working conditions are generally excellent. Salaries are comparatively good. The fundamental tenets -- press freedom and the right to information -- generally hold true. The role of journalism in public discourse and democracy is highly valued. Technology has helped immensely, but sadly it has also reduced human contacts with the sources. Although there is this debate about liberal-conservative leanings of the press, the larger problem in the U.S. media is commercialism. Given the intense competitions, the media industry fills all sorts of niches to target specialized consumers and the ratings define a journalist, not necessarily the quality of work. America is celebrity journalism at its best. Paris Hilton's hairstyle outsells Al Gore's speech on the environment. That is hurting democracy, and that is what Jay Rosen, the journalism expert, means when he says that the press is being absorbed into the media machine.

But the American mediascape is diverse. It is a continuum, reflecting all political views, and focusing on all issues, topics and regions, only that some are more visible and influential, and others are not. Take the example of the local press. Small town media demonstrate community bonds, promote "we are all in this" mentality, and for them, all community activities and concerns become news. Despite some limitations, American journalists, at all levels of the media machine, demonstrate a high degree of professionalism, characterized by good research and writing practices. After all, they are part of a culture that promotes independent writing and reading since elementary school.

Of late, Nepali journalists in the U.S. are making their mark. How are they doing in the U.S.?
Certainly, things are evolving for the better. The late Gopal Das Shrestha would rejoice. Times are different from 1958, when he became the first Nepali journalist to live and study in the United States. Dramatic increase in the number of Nepali migrant communities, wider access to media such as the Internet, English language competence among the young generation, and a growing appeal of the field of journalism among youngsters, etc. have helped in the upsurge of some journalistic activities, particularly in the past 3-4 years.

Several informational Web sites are now operated by Nepalis based in the United States. There is also at least one fortnightly print tabloid magazine published out of New York. But in terms of organic development, the ethnic Nepali media are still in an embryonic stage. The inception of blogs in recent times is impressive. But we must ask, how much of it is journalism? We don't see much hard-core journalism in these blogs, understandably because of resource constraints. You need a good pool of committed reporters and writers to produce original, quality content. Nonetheless, some media activities are apparent. A couple of weeks ago, I met a group of young Nepali journalists and bloggers at the South Asian Journalists Association (SAJA) Convention in New York. Some actively participated in a number of sessions, others served as volunteers. Such involvement was unthinkable only a few years ago.

Unlike the stereotypically mediocre generation of the past, the young professionals appear goal seeking, creative, and open-minded. But the extent of their involvement and impact still remains a matter of conjecture. A survey of ethnic Nepali media/media workers in North America is overdue. We must also distinguish between journalists and other information workers. Ultimately, what matters in a journalist's work is the quality of reporting and writing.

One reads a lot of theories in journalism classes in universities. But when it comes to applying theories, it's always difficult. What is your opinion on this gap between theory and practice?
This is a recurrent question in journalism. There is a difference between knowing how to do something (practice) and knowing why we do what we do (theory). An artist may not necessarily know why she can sing or paint, but she could do that exceptionally well. A craftsman may not be able to explain why he weaves a Nepali doko (wicker basket) the way he does, but he may weave incredible dokos anyway.

Theories work better in hard science than in social science or humanities. Journalism is more about humans, and their works, it is more an art or craft than science. In fact, the classic textbook exhortation to journalists is: First, focus on humans. It also has social science elements and that is where theory comes in. Theory is about prediction, but humans are unpredictable. They don't always play by the rules. People can cry not only in pain but also in pleasure. Money, power and prestige come on their way, and theories are often [mis]used to serve a certain interest.

Humans are hard to deal with. Theory says, verify your sources. But sources are not always forthcoming. This is true in other disciplines, too, including hard sciences and politics. Theory says global warming is real. But look at the conservational practices of humans. Theory says Maoists are for "people's democracy" but their totalitarian tendencies convey something else. Yet, it is true that this is more so in journalism, because it is primarily defined by a practice constantly under deadline, with little or no time to accommodate theories. That is precisely why it is also a creative profession.

You used to run, a Web site that gathers news and links on Nepal related news from around the world. How did that idea come to you?
I started it as a class project in Missouri in 1999. Except for, which hosted print publications, there were no news sites. As a journalist I had noticed that the coverage of Nepal in the world press was often distorted. I have lived most of my life outside Nepal, and it was as if no Nepalis cared about such things! I developed the site as Nepal's news monitor [now a part of].

Apart from journalism and teaching, what are you interested in?
Research and writing are important parts of my academic life right now. My focus is on public role of journalism, intersections of media, politics, society and culture in the global sphere. In college I studied literature and philosophy. During the last several years as a graduate student, I did not have much time for those areas. Now I am revisiting the books I read and the questions of life I used to wonder about. Also, I am revising the narrative biography I wrote on Bharat Dutta Koirala, Nepal's leading journalist. The book proposals are part of my interest at the moment.

How do you view the situation for journalists and media in Nepal?
We must not confuse media with journalism or journalists (although they are related). That helps to see things clearly. Without doubt, a section of Nepal's mainline media is doing better, financially. After the post-1990 liberal environment, it has grown phenomenally, acquiring the status of a thriving industry. In 2003, I visited some of the leaders of the industry, including Hem Raj Gyawali, Kanak Mani Dixit, and Pushkar Lal Shrestha. They displayed an optimism which is rare in Nepali media sector. There and then, I felt that the elevator at Kantipur Publications defies the traditional notion of Nepali media as backward and unsophisticated. Some of these media boast of the country's best publications, technically and professionally.

But a large section of the private media, particularly, the political weeklies, are burdened by their partisan past. They must find a way to adjust to the changing times if they are to survive. The government media have no place in a true democracy. Either they must be privatized or turned into public outlets. I see the need to formulate and execute comprehensive media regulations that ensure a level playing field for investors as well as individual workers.

Under the changing media terrain, the professional status of some journalists has improved considerably. But I think a majority of journalists continue to work under grim circumstances -- low wages (or no wages), poor working conditions, long working hours, little or no professional development opportunities, etc. Unless the grievances of the working journalists are adequately addressed, the situation will deteriorate. The political schism among journalists -- there are Congressi journalists, UML (Communist Party of Nepal United Marxist Leninist) journalists, royalist journalists, not to mention the Maobadi (Maoist) journalists -- will also hamper their professional growth, characterized by unity of purpose. Will the unity that some of these factions demonstrated in fighting government censorship in recent years continue?

Now that we again have a free press environment, the mainline media will regain their growth. They can choose to write stories that sell, without governmental restraints. For good or bad, they have outgrown the limits of governmental control, as was evident in their powers in recent years to successfully confront state censorship.

Over the past few years, after the Feb. 1 royal takeover to be specific, blog sites such as,,,,, etc. have sprouted. How do you assess the impact of blogs in Nepal and in the international arena? Will blogs in the long run replace or affect -- to say the least -- the traditional media?
The timing could not have been more perfect. Two thousand and four is considered the year of the blog, and Nepal is catching up with the new technology. The blogs, politically savvy as they are, helped to sharpen democratic discourse, though, at times, very polarized. The interactive features, such as readers' comments, expanded users' participation, and hopefully their political awareness. But many studies on blogs suggest that they help reinforce your pre-existing biases rather than change your points of views. You are more likely to visit blogs that conform to your political biases and ideologies than those that do not. My impression is that the quality of comments on Nepali blogs is of poor taste and often loaded with emotionalism. There is little rational discourse. This is a huge blow to the utopian notion that blogs foster dialogue. We must conduct scientific studies to conclusively determine the extent of impact they had on Nepal, but there is no doubt they did influence the formation of public opinion, at least in the diaspora, about the political impasse in Nepal. Blogs are a huge phenomenon in the U.S. For example, in any given day, several million more people visit than the New York Times. There are others like,, etc. But there are few such blogs and their traffic alone does not prove they will replace traditional media. Most of the blogs are visited by the owners, and if lucky, a few friends or family members.

The fear that blogs -- now estimated at 50 million -- will replace the traditional media is just a fear. Remember Marshall McLuhan's phrase "medium is the message?" A blog is a new medium on the Internet. Every new medium caused fear among the users of the old medium, whether it was the letterpress or radio or television or the Internet. No matter how new a medium, it cannot replace good content. But old media can adjust to new media. The New York Times, the Guardian, and others look bloggish already. They remain unchallenged leaders in journalistic content. There is a difference between a journalist's blog and just a blog. The need for quality content -- more analyses than raw content -- will always be there and that is where the future journalists will shine.

In recent years, technology has changed the way we communicate. OhmyNews has come up with the noble idea of citizen journalism, having more than 1,200 citizen reporters worldwide. What is your comment on this endeavor?
Citizen Journalism has its roots in the public or civic journalism movement of the early 1990s in the USA. It is a form of participatory journalism. The tension between elite rule and popular participation has raged on since the founding of modern America, first culminating in the 1920s in the debates of intellectuals like John Dewey, a believer in grassroots democracy, and Walter Lippman, an elitist. Can the masses be trusted to govern? Shouldn't the elite always rule? This happened within the church as well. For many centuries, the ordinary people were not permitted to own or read the Bible. In a complete, true democracy everyone must be able to participate in the political process. In practice that is not the case. The new technologies look promising in this regard. This applies to journalism, a major element of the democratic process. The new technology, particularly the Internet, has helped to demystify journalism as a profession of a select few. Journalism in a more literate and interconnected world is becoming more inclusive. In fact, unlike other disciplines, journalism has always been an open profession -- you don't need a college degree or a license to become a journalist. What Mr. Oh Yeon-ho of OhmyNews has done is provide a platform and leadership to meaningfully put into practice a theory that has been debated for ages. Increasingly, it looks like participatory journalism is possible in practice. Some day we may even have 40 or 400 million Cit Js doing their jobs. Not unrealistic given the technology and the market -- the earth is already close to 7 billion people.

Are you optimistic with the developments and changes taking place in Nepal after the April Revolution? Do you think that the Maoist insurgency will be resolved?
I believe more in evolution than in revolution. Hence, whatever incremental progress there is, that should be appreciated. Revolutions do help in changing the course of direction of a nation. But once the direction is set by broad consensus, if it is set at all, we must stick to that direction. Otherwise we keep changing directions and inventing revolutions that will lead us nowhere. Unfortunately, Nepali politics is unpredictable. Even after the April Revolution, our leaders have not been able to identify a common direction.

The victory of democracy in terms of principle (which is what happened in April) will not guarantee the victory of democracy in terms of outcome. It is a slow and painful process, another cause for a new revolution. Just look at the Indian Republic. They have the system in place. But they also have a million (metaphorically speaking) insurgencies at any given time. We are obsessed with the institutions of democracy. But democracy is also about personal attitudes and behaviors. And it takes generations to transform a culture of oppression and conceit into a society of conversation and merit.

The Maoist insurgency cannot continue indefinitely. Many civil wars have been resolved around the world. It is only a matter of time. But I fear it will be a time of Maoists' choosing. They have agreed to embrace a party-system and join the government, but continue to extort money, and kill innocent people. I have experienced some personal tragedies -- some members of my extended family have become victims of their atrocities and extortions. It is also likely that the Maoists will ignore Constituent Assembly election results and take over the country, as most revolutionaries have done in the past.

But the real revolution in Nepal will remain incomplete until we settle all outstanding disputes with India, including the 1950 treaty, and issues of trade, border and Nepalis in India, etc. Our economic dependence on India requires a new approach to trade with that rising economic power. The recent revolution (if we have to call it a revolution) also proved that the real power lies at Delhi Durbar, not at the Narayan Hiti or Singha Durbar.

Are there any issues in Nepal that are highly underreported in the media?
Yes, there are. A British journalist recently e-mailed me, asking: Why do you think there has been such a lack of coverage in mainstream Nepali media about the children who are being impacted so harshly by the conflict? I have similar questions regarding the coverage of health, literacy, the elderly population, science and the environment, new technologies, social trends, innovations in farming, refugee crisis (overshadowed by the ongoing conflict), long-standing disputes with India, religions, and media, to mention a few.

Perhaps we must also ask how adequately journalists are approaching their subject matter and in what form and shape. By just covering any and every topic in a few paragraphs, we try to do everything and end up doing nothing. We may need to focus on a few critical issues and topics. There is too much deadline reporting in our media. We need more investigative work and in-depth-storytelling. Sound bite reporting does not help understand the complex issues of our times. Over the past decade, we have seen a phenomenal growth in the number of specialized magazines that entertain a variety of story formats. But the mainstream publications (with a few exceptions) still lack well-researched and adequately sourced long-form stories, features, profiles, service journalism pieces (how-to stories), etc. As a developing nation, we need to impart understanding of the ground realities via explanatory journalism, not just inform the public. There is also the general lack of follow up to important and interesting stories. Where is Mr. Ram Bahadur Bomjan, the so-called Little Buddha? What happened to the issue of Kalapani? Why such little interests in our kidnapped peacekeepers in Congo? Why wouldn't our leading media houses dispatch some reporters to the scene there? Isn't it a time to move to the next level?

Who are your role models in journalism? What do you want to say to aspiring Nepali journalists?
I like Barry Siegel for his details and characters, and Tom Friedman for his analysis. Authors Daniel Boorstin, Marshall McLuhan, Lewis Mumford, Edward Gibbon, etc. inspire me to think and write unconventionally. But my real inspiration is my own teacher at Missouri -- Edmund Lambeth. His humanity touched me, and he taught me how to refine my thoughts and writing. That makes me a Lambethian, a member of a growing cult.

Back in Nepal, my role models are definitely Bharat Dutta Koirala, for his leadership and resourcefulness, Kunda Dixit for his creative and masterful writing, and Bhairav Aryal (he was a journalist), for his witty satires.

Journalism is a calling. It is an altruistic profession. The literal meaning of "altruism" is "for the other." To be a real, good journalist, you must be able to make a lot of personal sacrifice so you can contribute to the society, to the world. You must be able to read a wide variety of literature and enjoy being a generalist. You must be able to rewrite the same articles countless times without any grudges. Unlike in literature, where the author could reveal his/her voice directly, journalism is mostly a third person reporting, meaning the reporter has to constantly negate one's own existence. For people who have big egos, that can be difficult. Those who overcome those difficulties ultimately emerge as successful journalists.

What makes a good journalist? What are the basic skills a journalist must possess?
I already mentioned the significance of basic journalistic values and the 4Cs. There is more to it. I always take my students to a sense-tour. I ask them to use all their senses, including their sixth sense, while reporting their story. They must immerse in a story, and observe while gathering information. They must try to touch the story, they must relate to the sights and the sounds, they must be able to describe the smells, and they must use their intuition to see how those senses converge in the story. We take such things for granted, but most of the time human beings use only their visual or aural sense.

For a print journalist, words are the basic ingredients. So he or she must be able to attend to details and facts. Use simple language, preferably the vocabulary of high school textbooks. Observations are not enough; they must be contextualized with good research and extensive readings. Professional ethics and self-discipline is critical. Too often, given the open nature of the discipline, journalists don't get the needed supervision and mentorship that is common in other professions. The most profound stories are usually about the simple things of life -- love, fear, greed, hope, etc. Listen to others no matter how boring they are. Blend with people although they may be unwelcoming. Focus on them, and while doing so do not forget that you are dealing with human beings, no matter what their roles in the story. So write with empathy, not cynicism. Journalism is a craft, so you have to identify what works best for you.

This interview's original link is here.