Visitors coming to Nepal and expecting to feel the country´s “pulse” by reading the English papers and magazines will find themselves sadly out of touch. For, unlike every other country of South Asia, where English holds more than a toehold, here the lingua franca of Nepali holds overwhelming command. The disproportionate influence of the small English press derives from the diplomatic community and the expatriate “development set” which makes its readership. However, it is the Nepali press which touches the lives of the people and plays a role in guiding national politics, in ways good and bad.
Nepal never underwent the legacy of British colonialism that placed English as the language of the educated elite. This is why, unlike in other countries of the region, English language, and by extension the English press, is peripheral to the interests of those who make political decisions and form public opinion. Unfortunately, Nepali language journalism, while wielding overwhelming influence in modern Nepali society, remains in its infancy and unable to play the responsible role required of it as the “fourth estate” of modern democratic society. Looked at another way, however, the development of Nepali language journalism has been remarkable, given the social conditions against which it has had to struggle.
Until 1950, Nepali society was predominantly illiterate, and only the upper castes in the hill areas and a handful of aristocratic families in Kathmandu knew how to read and write. The autocratic Rana rulers tried mightily to prevent the ordinary people from entering the world of the printed word. Only in the first few decades of the twentieth century did Nepali “commoners” begin to write and publish, and that too from the safe havens of Benaras, Shillong, Darjeeling and Dehradun, in India.
The first Nepali magazine to be published from Nepal, Sudhasagar, came out in 1898. “If, by any chance, the magazine closes down due to lack of your support, or due to few buyers, then not only will I suffer, you will also be put to shame,” wrote the publisher in one desperate appeal, and his paper folded soon enough. The lament at lack of readership was to be a common refrain among editors for the next 90 years.
Gorkhapatra, the grand lady of Nepali journalism, started as a weekly in 1901 serving as a kind of house-organ of the Rana rulers. Similarly, two other magazines, Sharada (1934) and Udhyog (1935), were established by the Ranas, ostensibly to help improve the Nepali language. Political journalism began with the appearance of two weeklies in India which called for the overthrow of the hereditary autocrats: Yugbani from Benaras and Nepal Pukar from Calcutta.
Following the tradition of the last two, the publications that came into existence after the fall of the Rana regime in 1950 also took up political missions. The passion for reporting and editorialising on politics has never abated, and political coverage has remained the staple of Nepali newspapers ever since.
Limits of Public Expression
The years immediately after 1950 saw a mushrooming of newspapers, partially to cater to the burgeoning political parties, as most of the papers had partisan interests. In the midst of all this, some like the dailies Samaj and Halkhabar remained independent and garnered respect. Even though the circulation of these papers remained in the hundreds, they were instrumental in bringing about a measure of political awareness in a country which had just emerged from medievalism and was confronting modernity.
Survival through sales was very difficult in a country where there were so few educated—in 1955, less than 8000 Nepalis had completed secondary school education. It was but natural that most newspapers thus turned to the government for help, receiving subsidies and advertisements. A clear division between “pro-establishment” and “anti-establishment” newspapers arose as a result, a separation which remained firmly in place till the “second coming” of democracy in 1990.
During the intervening three decades, the “partyless” Panchayat system introduced by the present king´s father, Mahendra, held sway. And for three decades, the evolution of Nepali journalism was inhibited under the weight of a system which only allowed “constructive criticism”, which meant “you couldn´t write anything about the monarchy,” recalls Maniraj Upadhyaya, editor of Samaj.
Even during the Panchayat period, though, the press remained important, because its consumers were the few thousand readers, mostly Kathmandu residents, who could affect the political process and government decisions. After the return of the Nepali Congress leader B.P. Koirala from exile in India in 1977, some editors became bold enough to carry the heretic term “political party” in their columns, albeit always with the prescribed qualification “banned”. Some papers began actively promoting the restoration of multi-party democracy, at the cost of reprisals from watchdog agencies such as the Panchayat Policy and Investigation Committee. “Nepali newspapers deserve a large portion of the credit for keeping oppositional party politics alive during the Panchayat years,” says editor of Deshantar weekly Shree Acharya.
While the private press was exploring the limits of public expression, the authorities were actively promoting government media. Says Bharat Dutta Koirala, presently Director of the Nepal Press Institute and onetime editor of the Gorkhapatra, “All training opportunities and investment were provided to the government papers, and the private media was seen as an adversary.” Nevertheless, Gorkhapatra, though firmly a Panchayat organ, did occasionally provide reports on social and economic issues which held out the possibilities that were open for an independent broadsheet daily in a rapidly modernising Nepal.
Time of Transition
Just as it was impossible for King Mahendra´s (and later King Birendra´s) Panchayat system to keep the population isolated from ideas which would ultimately erode the system´s legitimacy, Kathmandu´s constant exposure to outside (Indian and overseas) media was bound to force the non-governmental press to try and test the limits. In the early 1980s, the weeklies began to come up with ´investigative´ pieces and to run ´exposes´, although they had to be taken with a pinch of salt. It all began when Surya Bahadur Thapa was forced to step down as prime minister and took up a vindictive crusade against what he called “extra-constitutional power brokers.” An aggrieved Mr Thapa financed newspapers that regularly published stories against his opponents both in the government and outside of it. Sensational revelations of all kinds have since remained a regular feature of the weekly papers.
Around this time the readership numbers began to grow, and the concept of ´public´ broadened to include a more diverse cross section of the society. The size of “media consumers” expanded from a few hundred of the 1960s, and a few thousands of the 1970s, to tens of thousands in the following decade. A growing readership also meant varied tastes, and newspaper content turned from pure politics to include literature, opinion, satire, sports, international news, crime, environment, and even society and culture.
Earlier, newspapers could make do without advertisement and large sales because overheads were low. However, the introduction of the offset press in the late 1980s and the sudden expansion of the Nepali market economy meant that the newspaper world, too, had to respond. The potential readership which had already been created with the spread of the government´s school system suddenly became accessible with the ubiquitous “night buses” carrying newspaper bundles to far comers on newly built highways. (According to one estimate, by 1991 five million people could read and write in Nepali.) While the “readership” had grown, the spread of radio and television, expanded reach of highways, growth of a middle class centred in cities and towns, as well as monetisation of the economy, also contributed to the rise of a “market” which the producers of goods and services could access through the press. Readership and market meant the possibility, finally, of a commercial approach to media publishing. However, one element was lacking in this menu to prevent true expansion—democracy and the attendant press freedom, which was soon to come.
The modernisation of the country, increased aspirations, and exasperation with a top-heavy monarchical system all whittled away at the Panchayat superstructure, and in one swift people´s movement amply aided by the media, the political system crumbled in the spring of 1990. Freedom of speech allowed the Nepali media to have the credibility it required to access the market, and for the first time businessmen started to show an interest in newspapers as money-making enterprises. In February 1993, the first private Nepali and English broadsheet dailies were published by the Goenkas, a Nepali branch of the Indian Express Goenka clan. This marked the entry of commercial interests into newspaper publishing, soon to be followed (in the last year) with a sudden rush of four more broadsheet dailies in the vernacular. In the growing market for information, the sudden shift of mainstream journalism from opinionated, partisan weeklies to dailies (which have to function more like dispassionate media) indicated a shift towards a quicker and more reliable source of news and views. Would the new dailies deliver?
Ring out the Old
Nepahs have long been accustomed to believing in texts without authors, the smritis and the srutis. In the transition from writing in Sanskrit to Nepali there was much that still depended on that tradition. This explains the marked difference in the way Western-educated and those who read and write only in Nepali tackle research— and journalism, The latter tend to be better at description, but poorer in research methodology, questioning and analysis. They tend towards stock responses and reliance upon what they have read and believed.
As important is the language barrier. Journalists writing in Nepali generally do not read English, which keeps them from accessing the world of learning available to the English-educated. Neither do Nepali readers have the advantage of reading newspapers and magazines in English, and as a result much of their understanding of the media´s role in society can sometimes be second hand. In the case of young Nepali students of journalism, they can now get the “theory” in the classroom, but there are few examples of “good journalism” for rookies to emulate.
The Nepali reporter is also hampered by the inability to access ´facts´. Most information that can be sourced is still largely unreliable, whereas the Western value system expects news to have facts. Retrieval of information in Nepal is extremely difficult and has not been systematised. Since it is so difficult to get facts, the temptation to rely on rumour and fiction is that much greater.
The problem does not lie only with the professional journalist, however. There is a long way to go before even the new commercially-oriented dailies fit the role of responsible media. To begin with, those who command the higher echelons of the media have not changed. The publishers and editors are still largely of the old guard who learnt and practised journalism in the Panchayat days and are found to be timid and reluctant to explore the outer edges of what media can achieve in a free society. While the younger lot of reporters seem to have the commitment and energy, the seniors fail to provide the required guidance and editing.
Neither do the newly emerged dailies seem too keen on conducting independent and objective journalism. In retrospect, many a publisher seems to have entered the field merely to support a political party or a power broker. These publishers also seem to regard their newspapers as loss-making entities set up merely to ensure profits in other sectors. With publishers operating in Kathmandu´s circumscribed business and political world, the editors of the dailies have not dared unleash “investigative journalism” upon the top dogs of society—the mark of a truly independent press.
Perhaps the biggest loser in this incestuous relationship between the politician and the publisher/editor, besides, obviously, the public, is what is known in Nepal as the “working journalist”. As a result, even capable journalists cannot presently be called “professional journalists”.
Ring in the New
On the whole, the Nepali press has been singularly unable to transform itself from a partisan press of the Panchayat era into a strong and confident “fourth estate” providing the objective news, information, and analyses so important for a democratic polity. It has failed to lead the debate on national issues and instead willingly follows the motivated agenda of politicians, who prefer to highlight petty but emotive issues for their party´s and personal advantage. There remains, therefore, a distance to travel before the Nepali media will begin to fulfill the role of a “national conscience”.
However, things can only get better. To begin with, the new cadre of young writers and reporters currently joining journalism are career-oriented individuals of higher calibre than their predecessors. Secondly, the public itself is beginning to demand more from journalism than the partisan, political fare it has been receiving. As publishers and editors begin to realise that it makes economic sense to provide dispassionate, objective reports and reading, Nepal´s world of media will change, and hopefully this will happen within the next few years.
Careful observers can actually see this positive trend in the making. Because dissemination of information is so much quicker through daily papers and because the very nature of the daily newspaper requires more professional reporting than that of weeklies which make no bones about their political bias, the public is beginning to form its opinion more on the basis of information and rational argument than on rumour and emotional party-leaning polemics. This is a change from the earlier, more ideological and impassioned times, and the political parties are the first to notice.
A striking example is how media reports helped temper the extremist tendencies within the mainstream Left. In late 1995, the minority government of the United Marxist-Leninist (UML) called for a mid-term poll, expecting to come to power with a thumping majority in Parliament. The Nepali Congress opposition, meanwhile, wanted the House to be reinstated. The issue polarised the intelligentsia, and everyone waited keenly for the Supreme Court´s verdict on the issue, for the government´s decision had been challenged in court.
When the Court ruled against the UML, the party cadres were enraged, and the high command considered rebelling against the judgment. Nepal faced a possible extra-constitutional crisis, but the Left lion only roared, it did not act. One reason, many observers believe, is that the UML´s area of manoeuvrability had been severely restricted by the daily blow-by-blow reporting on the affair reaching the far corners of the country through the dailies—particularly Kantipur. While interpretations of the Court´s decision vary, the Left party found it impossible to overturn it through street action, which might have succeeded in the absence of the daily reportage.
There are many other indications that the Nepali language press is gearing up to meet the expectations that rest on it. While there are always the frustrations, the Nepali newspapermen and women are engaged in accelerated learning; they have the responsibility of bringing Nepal´s media world into the modern era, and so far they have had only six years of freedom to try to achieve it.
While the journalist prepares for the next phase of the media´s involvement in Nepali society, a nagging question remains. There have been debates in the fields of development and governance as to whether the ´Western´ model can be transplanted willy nilly in Nepali soil. Similarly, some observers believe that younger journalists may be too quick to adopt ´Western´ styles of reporting and writing. While these observers are unable to suggest what kind of system might be better, there is the American professor of media studies who told journalists in Kathmandu recently, “I don´t know what type of journalism you should develop. But it should be your own.”
With new newspapers coming up, young journalists are being trained and the society is demanding that together they fulfil their role in the new democratic setup. The practitioners of the press are trying—very hard—to fulfil responsibilities which, to them, are new. Sooner, rather than later, the Nepali papers and their “working journalists” will deliver.