Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Covering Nepal's first election in nine years: Q & A with AsiaMedia

Here's my interview with AsiaMedia, based at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA).

Covering Nepal's first election in nine years
In a Q&A with AsiaMedia, Dharma Adhikari discusses the challenges the Nepali press faced in covering Nepal's historic election on April 10

By Jaime Mendoza
AsiaMedia Staff Writer
Friday, April 11, 2008
After polls closed at 5 p.m. on Thursday, the Nepal Election Commission reported a 60 percent turnout out of the possible 17.6 million registered voters in the country's first Constituent Assembly election in nine years.

The country failed to reach the 67 percent turnout it reached for the last general election in 1999.

Reports indicate 33 polling stations were closed down after violence struck the country 72 hours before the voting started. On Tuesday, Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist) candidate Rishi Prasad Sharma was killed by an unknown gunman, thus resulting in the voting in Surkhet district getting rescheduled for April 19. Seven Maoists also died in a shootout with authorities in the Dang district that night.

On Thursday at least three people, including one candidate, were reported killed.
For the election, 100,000 national monitors were dispatched as well as 800 international observers that included the United Nations, the European Union and The Carter Center. Kathmandu University visiting scholar and AsiaMedia contributing writer Dharma Adhikari served as director of a nationwide Media Monitoring Program for the election for Press Council Nepal and the Election Commission.

In an e-mail interview with AsiaMedia, Adhikari explains the significance of today's historic events in Nepal and the role the media played.

The following is an edited transcript.
AsiaMedia: First of all, what is the significance of the 2008 Constituent Assembly election in Nepal?
Dharma Adhikari: We have to look at this in the context of Nepal's political history and the nature of democratic elections. The polls come after a decade-long Maoist civil war that left more than 13,000 people dead.

Nepal is one of the most ancient nations in South Asia. But compared to the pace of change experienced by several new nations that emerged in the region's post-colonial era, Nepal, for too long, remained a dormant country. Political reforms were cosmetic. Power remained centralized in the hands of the feudal elite. During much of the 200 years since the founding of the nation, Nepalis have been ruled by the decrees of hereditary kings or prime ministers.

The first wave of popular democratic uprising in 1951 did pave the way for a popular rule. King Tribhuvan promised to let the people elect a Constitution Assembly so they could write their own constitution. But that did not happen because successive kings actually consolidated monarchy, although they also intermittently accepted a limited role for political parties or a multi-party democracy.

That only widened the rift between the palace and the political parties. Political breakthroughs did not occur because their constant power struggles often ended in petty compromises. As a result, several unlikely political parties and coalitions ruled the country. Such compromises also produced several constitutions that were often amended or aborted.

On Thursday, April 10, for the first time in their history, Nepalis are directly voting to elect their own representatives who will write the constitution of the country.

AM: Will the monarchy be dissolved after the election?
DA: It looks like it will be dissolved. There will be no referendum on monarchy in this election. The first meeting of the Constituent Assembly will vote on whether to retain monarchy or not. Almost all the 54 political parties running for the election propagate republicanism.

AM: What do you think the current government and political parties have done correctly or incorrectly to foster the election process?
DA: The current interim coalition government of seven major political parties and the Maoists has more or less maintained its unity and commitment to a free and fair election. The ethnic uprising in the south of the country last year caused two election postponements, but the government was able to bring the peace process back on track after it belatedly held dialogues with the rebels there.

The political parties have been able to offer a wide range of ideological and policy choices to the public. They have enlivened the debate on inclusion and restructuring of the state. The former Maoist guerillas have entered competitive politics and they are now contesting popular elections.

But Maoist intimidation, excesses and violence continue. In principle, many political parties champion pluralism; in practice they often are intolerant of their opponents. In the south of the country, several armed factions are boycotting the election. The security situation remains poor. As many as nine people, including at least two candidates, have lost their lives in pre-poll violence.

AM: How about the media's role in the election process?
DA: The media have actively advocated peaceful elections and helped in voters' education. Although opinion journalism in weekly newspapers and broadcast commentaries is often partisan and biased in favor of a particular party, the media in general have covered the election process professionally. Instances of hate speech or communal framing are rare. Despite attacks and intimidations by Maoists and other rebel groups, journalists have been able to report on the election process.

AM: Can you explain the current situation Nepal journalists face covering politics and the election?
DA: After the popular uprising of April 2006, the new government annulled all press directives that restrained press freedoms. The interim constitution guaranteed freedom of speech and the press. The relief was short-lived. Journalists became targets of ethic groups and armed thugs in the southern plains of Tarai. To force favorable coverage of their activities, the Young Communist League, a Maoist youth wing, routinely intimidated and attacked journalists. At least two journalists were killed in the line of duty.

AM: What is being done to provide a safe environment for journalists to perform their jobs?
DA: Currently, such threats have subsided. Reports of attacks, intimidation and threats have significantly declined. Works in safeguarding journalists are limited to efforts at deterring future attacks and intimidations via regular monitoring of press freedom violations. There are also periodic international media missions to Nepal. Few journalists are trained in conflict-reporting. Most are on their own, without the needed skills or an emergency support system.

AM: Nepal bloggers acted as watchdogs during King Gyanendra's media censorship. What kind of impact are bloggers making in this election cycle?
DA: Since most blogs on Nepal are created and read outside the country, mostly in the United States, their direct impact is minimal in Nepal. Less than an estimated 80,000 people have regular access to the Web, fewer actually read blogs.

Control of information or press freedom during the royal censorship was controversial enough to galvanize bloggers to speak truth to power. Perhaps this election is not as controversial to generate discernible impact. However, blogs on Nepal are lively and reflect a wide variety of political views.

AM: What role has the international community played in the election process?
DA: Never before in Nepal's history had the international community shown such keen interest and participated in such a big way in the country's political process. The United Nations monitoring mission has a large presence. The European Union, the United States, United Kingdom and India are actively supporting the peace process. In fact, they exerted tremendous pressure on the Nepali government to hold timely elections.

AM: What interests do the regional powers have regarding the Nepal elections?
DA: India's interest is guided by her need for peace and stability in the neighborhood as well as her historical and cultural affinity with Nepal. India has always played the role of a facilitator in Nepal's democratic transitions. Besides the Maoist spillover effect, India is also concerned with the violence in southern Nepal, across the border. China, which has always distanced itself from the Nepali Maoists, also sees the election as a means to regional peace and stability.

Editor's Note (4/14/08): AsiaMedia made two corrections to this article. First, in 1999 Nepal held a general election, not a Constituent Assembly election. Second, Adhikari was director of a nationwide Media Monitoring Program for the election for Press Council Nepal and the Election Commission, not solely a media monitor. We regret any confusion caused by the errors.

Original link to the interview.