Before the 1980 plebiscite, the world of Nepali journalism was mostly form and little content. We called ourselves journalists, but not many of us were that, if you regard journalism first and foremost as a freedom forum to speak truth to the powerful state. The journalistic energy was concentrated in the tabloids like Bimarsa, Samikshya, Dristi and Desantar, which sought valiantly to make up for the lack of civil society, free courts, and political parties.
The reporting tended to be weak, but the papers, printed on cheap newsprint in cold lead type on treadle presses, provided plenty of opinion. These published opinion pieces reflected as much dissidence as was possible under the Panchayat system of government that had been established by King Mahendra in the early 1960’s. And the limits on the opinion press varied according to the regime’s mood. In those times, if you were not a hack working for the government’s Gorkhapatra/Rising Nepal or a regime-sympathizing "Panche" scribe, you were considered a "partisan" journalist. Journalists who did not particularly like the autocracy, but did not want to be associated with the banned political parties, took the path of apolitical journalism — writing and reporting on culture, language, literature, travel writing, and so on.
Journalists pushed the envelope of freedom after 1980 and helped greatly in creating the conditions for the People’s Movement of the spring of 1990, when windows were forced open to let in the air of freedom. Public support and market expansion helped buoy the world of journalism. Newspaper distribution expanded with the spread of highways, and economic expansion, in turn, generated advertising, so we found it was possible for broadsheet newspapers to survive with market revenue.
The decades-long pent-up demand for information in a newly literate nation was rapidly filled by several broadsheets, including Kantipur, which was started by some maverick businessmen and touched the pulse of the moment and sold well. Before long, a need was felt for the kind of analysis provided by newsmagazine journalism. Himal Khabarpatrika introduced this genre, which marked the second leap in print journalism after the arrival of Kantipur. And those who had predicted the death of the political weekly had to recant, as the tabloids have remained among us, daring to go where the corporate publications fear to tread. And with a surge in daily or weekly tabloids, journalism spread throughout Nepal.
The countrywide spread of journalism has taken full advantage of new electronic and digital possibilities, including fax, mobile phones, satellite connections, and the Internet. All this has helped the news media play a unifying role in the midst of our unsettled and stressful recent times. Nepali bloggers are active in spreading personalized news and opinion. Compared with other South Asian countries, Nepal’s photojournalism and political cartooning have evolved rapidly and now provide reaction and relief as the country has descended into political anarchy and violence.
Since 1990, the Nepali journalists’ learning curve has been very steep. In earlier years, we did not take full advantage of our available freedoms because many of us were so inexperienced as journalists, even if some of us were advanced in years. Journalists, for example, did not perform strongly as watchdogs over political parties and governments that came to power after 1990. For a while, in the initial years of the Maobadi "people’s war," there was romanticism in the press coverage, and to this day (with exceptions) there is fear among journalists when it comes to covering rebel atrocities. And when Chairman Gyanendra (the royal monarch who ruled Nepal) started to show his autocratic ambitions, with the backing of the military, many news media practitioners were exposed as men of straw.
Perhaps because journalists were so dramatically aware of what the Panchayat period had done to freedom of expression, and to Nepal’s prospects generally, they were immediately cognizant of the ramifications on their work when the royal coup of February 1, 2005 took place. Since then, working with the Nepal Bar Association, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists has played a central part in the fight for pluralism. With the royal regime’s overt intentions to muzzle the press and radio, journalists have fought back to keep autocracy at bay and the flame of freedom burning.
With the rise of the Maoist rebels and the king’s repressive rule and militarization, journalists were confronted by challenges inherent in living up to the highest principles of their vocation. They’ve had to fight government censorship while also guarding against self-censorship, which has taken courage, and they’ve had to show courage under fire as they’ve worked under the threat of commissars and gunmen. They have resisted demands of soldiers who have entered into their newsrooms and recording studios, and many of them have remained at the forefront of news and analysis while they’ve watched others go silently into hiding. When news organizations that had talked loudly suddenly went quiet, it was left to individuals like the redoubtable Rishi Dhamala to keep his Reporters’ Club of Nepal going. In April, during the time of street protests against the king’s rule, Dhamala and two other journalists were beaten by police as they closed down a program organized by the Reporter’s Club in Kathmandu.
At a time when so many other sectors of society failed the people of Nepal, journalists will one day be forgiven for basking in well-earned credit when peace and democracy return.
But even as Nepal moves towards democracy, journalists must maintain their standards of self-criticism and improvement. Journalism today is still riddled with weaknesses, despite the impressive journey we’ve made so far. In the future, we will have to work at dramatically increasing social inclusion within our ranks and ensure that the journalists in the local districts are paid at a level befitting their competence and role. Publishers must not shy away from competition, and we must inculcate higher standards in training as well as fostering investigative journalism.
For now, the journalists of Nepal can take satisfaction for being in the midst of the good fight. Let no journalist complain of how difficult it is in the profession today: It is a privilege provided by the people, to be able to make a difference.
Kanak Mani Dixit is editor of Himal Southasian and publisher of Himal Khabarpatrika. He started his career in journalism with an article in The Rising Nepal in 1971. This article is adapted and updated from a story he wrote in February for The Kathmandu Post. During the recent toppling of the royal regime, he was arrested and spent several weeks in jail, where he gave interviews by cell phone and wrote articles clandestinely.