Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Karma of Nepali Journalists

Dharma Adhikari discusses the modern Nepali press in the context of recent threats to journalists in southern Nepal

By Dharma Adhikari
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

Several weeks ago, I received an email message from Vincent Lim, the deputy editor of AsiaMedia, an online press review based at the University of California, Los Angeles. Lim said the website was looking for contributors to increase its coverage of Nepal and hoped I would be able "to provide a framework for understanding the many issues facing journalists in the country today." His inquiry came just as a wave of intercommunal rioting was spreading throughout southern Nepal.

Browsing the website, I could tell that AsiaMedia's interest in Nepal went beyond a fleeting fascination with the conflict in Nepal. They have been closely following media issues and developments in the country, including the repression of the press during much of 2005 under the absolute monarchy of King Gyanendra.

So I asked myself what more could I add to the coverage besides complaining that the Maoist rebels as well as a new breed of insurgents are still harassing, intimidating and attacking the press even after a peace deal was signed in November 2006 to end the 11-year civil war between the government and Maoists. I asked myself what more I could do than bemoaning the fact that journalists continue to suffer, even after the King stepped down, Maoists joined the new government and repressive press laws were annulled.

Looking at the latest email alerts by media rights groups, I could cite grim statistics to highlight the alarming trend in recent months. The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), for example, released a report (PDF) in early May which said that the period of political transition has been difficult for the country and "for journalists in particular." IFJ noted that in the past six months, since the ethnic unrest in southern Nepal began, 35 journalists have been attacked, 40 others have received serious threats or been harassed and 19 were fired from their jobs. At least three major media houses were also attacked. The effect has been such that some 53 weekly and daily newspapers (mostly tabloids in the vernacular Nepali language) in the southeastern provinces have been forced to cease publication. Armed groups in the region have also silenced radio stations perceived to be critical of their activities.

Before April 2006, when the King stepped down, there were two primary enemies of the press: the royal government and the Maoist rebels. Their tyranny helped establish Nepal as one of the 10 worst countries in 2005 in terms of press freedom, as ranked by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF). During the conflict, as many as two dozen journalists were killed, hundreds were arrested and jailed and hundreds of others lost their jobs. Nepal, like Iraq, Algeria, Russia and Columbia, has been one of the deadliest countries for journalists in recent history.

Still, the culture of violence against the media is relatively new to Nepal. Although the seeds of violence existed since the inception of the modern press in the 1950s, violence began to fully surface with the start of the Maoist insurgency in the mid-1990s. Before then, the only highly publicized politically-motivated physical attacks on the press in the country involved a near-fatal shooting of a prominent journalist, Padam Thakurathi, in August 1986. Today, the situation has become more complex. The press continues to suffer at the hands of not only insurgents, political parties, and security forces, but also non-state actors.

What is noteworthy are the changing faces and motives of perpetrators of press freedom violations in the (supposedly) conflict-free Nepal. The new enemies of the press represent almost every sector of Nepali society -- Maoist splinter groups, members of ethnic movements, groups of working professionals as well as community and provincial leaders, bureaucrats, students, local youth groups and criminals. There are also the familiar foes such as armed insurgents, army and police officers, political groups and politicians. On top of this, a former Maoist spokesperson leads the ministry of information and communication in the interim administration.

What is puzzling is that the attacks re-intensified just when the peace process came into effect. It is a pattern of progress, then regression. "Now a new ailment plagues various interest groups, including the Maoists," says Tara Baral, a veteran journalist who has worked in Nepal's hinterlands and formerly served as chair of Nepal Press Union. "They don't want to hear any negative criticism from the press. There's only their way."

Because of the adverse working conditions, Baral left the country for the United States a few years ago. He says democracy hasn't yet arrived in the villages of Nepal and it is extremely difficult to work as a journalist there.

In principle, the ongoing democratic reforms in the country have helped establish the key structural conditions for press freedom; the government can no longer censor or ban the press. But in practice, the cultural conditions for freedom, such as the recognition of individual rights and tolerance of the others' views, are not there. Many political factions and interest groups appear to be confusing individual rights with indivisible rights.

The majority of the country's estimated 5,000 journalists live outside Kathmandu, the capital city, and they are the ones who suffer the most. They work long hours for less than $100 a month, not an adequate sum even in the context of the local economy, and risk their lives every day to report on stories. They write or broadcast in the vernacular Nepali language, the language of the masses. But because of the difficult conditions on the ground, they are not always able to serve as the voice of the people. Journalists can sometimes be prosecutorial in their dealings with overbearing provincial officials, groups and individuals and that also strains relationships with local communities.

Their plight differs from situation of the few privileged journalists based in Kathmandu, a comfort zone, relatively speaking. These upwardly mobile journalists work for elite media, particularly the English-language press. They make a decent living, deal with fewer hostile sources and situations, and are generally accorded a certain amount of social prestige.

The post-1990 democratic reforms have helped in the growth of the media sector, now an over $30-million industry. Although news businesses have been the chief beneficiaries of this surge in media entrepreneurship, individual journalists have limited economic freedom and opportunities for professional growth. Security is also a critical issue, and some have opted to leave the field altogether.

Rajendra Dahal, chair of Press Council Nepal, says that the expansion of media industry is a positive development, but these are not the best of times for Nepali journalists.

"Political uncertainty is one of the causes, but the U.N. and foreign money is doing the worst," he explains in an e-mail message. "Most of the capable [journalists] of the last 10 to 15 years have left the field for 'personal good causes' and there is not any new training or grooming taking place."

The task before Nepal's media is to balance corporate expansion with professional growth. Unlike the Indian or Sri Lankan press, with long institutional histories going back to British rule in the mid-1800s, Nepal's modern press is a recent development. It is one of the youngest in the South Asia region. Recent censorship and official control may have toughened Nepali journalists and raised their public profile quickly, but it takes decades for a society to shed a culture of indifference, secrecy and intimidation and to foster a culture of engagement, information sharing and press freedom.

The press must take the initiative to educate citizens about its role and values. An understanding of the rights and responsibilities of the press is essential to all members of society, and particularly bureaucrats and community leaders at the grassroots level. The government must also enforce laws that help create an environment for a vigilant and vibrant press.

Only then may the Nepali press be able to sustain the advances it has already made.

Original link is here.