Sunday, November 14, 2010

Review of My Book "A Compassionate Journalist"

Biography Of An Eminent Journalist
by Ritu Raj Subedi

Leon Trotsky in his autobiography said," Our times again are rich in memoirs, perhaps richer than ever before. It is because there is much to tell." So can be the case with biographies; they too can be employed to tell much to the people.

The book under review is not a memoir but a biography of eminent Nepalese journalist Bharat Dutta Koirala by learned young author Dharma Adhikari. It is perhaps the ‘there is much to tell’ element about the legend of Nepalese journalism that drove Adhikari to unfold the eventful sagas of Koirala’s life. Koirala represents an epoch of mesmerising change in Nepalese media. He saw both of it - obscurity and modernity - and became a part of its transformation. He was a driving force in catapulting the idea of ‘development journalism’, revolutionising rural communication through community radios and wallpapers, and introducing television to educate the masses. In addition, he spearheaded numerous media projects to enhance professionalism and integrity in Nepalese journalism.

It tempts anyone to know how a common scribe, who often prefers to introduce himself as ‘only a goat-herder of Gorkha,’ rose to global fame – a winner of Magsasay Award, an equivalent of Asia’s Nobel Prize and Knight International Journalism Award. Adhikari quenches our thirst by vividly describing the different stages of Koirala’s career in the book. It brings forth new information and clears some old illusions associated with Koirala. Divided into nine chapters with the order of years, it does not only highlight Koirala’s preferences, religious faith and professional values but also gives an insight into formative phase of Nepalese journalism and labours of the selfless people to expand the media as an agent of social change.

Koirala’s school life at Godavari and his subsequent struggle for the economic survival of the family and academic persuasion enthral the readers. It was a trick of destiny when Koirala’s family was deprived of rightful returns from the vast landholding of Thapa’s clan, which his father Ram Dutta Koirala had been taking care of for many years. ‘One day we had a lot of wealth, the next day everything was gone," recalls junior Koirala. Koiralas were thrust into penury from the world of comfort. This gave him the first taste of hard life and taught him to toil and struggle for his future endeavours.

His innings in journalism began as the first chief reporter of The Rising Nepal, then the chief editor Gorkhapatra daily and general manager of Gorkhapatra Corporation. He along with the like-minded peers launched his dream project – Nepal Press Institute - to enhance the skills of Nepalese journalists.

It was quite challenging when Koirala took the mantle of TRN’s reporting at the age of 22. Nonetheless, he successfully handled a crew of younger reporters for the betterment of the oldest English daily. As Adhikari writes, ‘Koirala encouraged his colleagues to go on their own way and provided opportunity to learn, explore and experiment.’ Kunda Dixit, a reporter then with TRN, remembers, ‘Koirala never acted as a boss but a benign leader. He made everyone around him feel at ease with humility and positive outlook on life."

For next one decade, he spent his creative energy in modernising Gorkhpatra daily and the Corporation. He got rid the daily of archaic language and made it the newspaper of the laymen. He promoted his colleagues to begin the columns like Hamro Gaon Ghar (Our Village) and Safaltako Katha (Success Stories), which later set the stage for development reporting. As a general manager, he attempted to restructure the institution through the adoption of new technology. His ability to circumvent bureaucratic hierarchies and fight against the in-house constraints brought some positive outcomes, leading the once ‘C’ level enterprise to almost ‘A’ level.

Koirala’s biggest contribution lay in his attempt to democratise the contents of Nepalese media. He emphasised on shifting the media focus on ‘very ordinary people’ (VOP) from the already ‘very important personalities’ (VIPs). He calls for writing on behalf of the people who do not have the political or economic power to influence the press. He is for a popular, participatory type of journalism, as apposed to an elitist one.

However, Koirala’s detractors criticise he treaded only on ‘soft areas’ and declined to handle the hard-hitting political issues to avoid confrontation with the then repressive regime. In many cases, they argue, he hobnobbed with the royalty to stick to his position. Author Adhikari leaps in to defend the democratic credentials of his intellectual mentor. He draws many sources that show how Koirala maintains objectivity, fairness and justice even within the sphere of limited press freedom. For example, during the referendum, Koirala had to cross sword with premier Surya Bahadur Thapa for giving due coverage to the activities of Congress and communists. By showing the royal order that legitimised equal coverage to all political groups, Koirala shut the mouth of panchas. Premier Thapa, who was hell-bent to make party-less panchayat victorious at any cost, decided to fire Koirala but he was saved after king Birendra intervened.

Later BP Koirala also praised him for ‘giving his party more coverage than they expected.’ In another case, Koirala wrestled with the Panchayat leaders when he recruited Kishor Nepal, an avowed Nepali Congress activist, to push rural reporting. The government and Rastirya Panchayat grilled Koirala many times for this. Koirala defended his move saying that Nepal’s profession had nothing to do with his political faith.

Writer Adhikari minutely records the luminous life of Koirala in the book. The use of many sources and information has made it highly truthful. Adhikari’s meticulous work combined with the employment of sophisticated English makes it a wonderful biography of a great person.

The review appeared in The Rising Nepal on Friday, 12 November 2010.