Democracy Can Complicate the Job of Journalists
When a decade of conflict ended, ‘what many Nepali journalists did not anticipate was that the worst had yet to come.’
What happens when a newly minted soldier marches into the battle theater, half-armed but expected to deliver the optimum? His options aren’t many—nor are they good ones: attempt an ambush and risk humiliation, suffer a deadly assault, or somehow convince the enemy to embrace peace. Or perhaps just retreat.
The contemporary circumstance of Nepal’s press is not unlike that of the besieged soldier. A not-so-good similar combination of odds exists in journalists’ efforts to report on the country’s messy transition to a democratic system of government.
During the past decade, journalism in Nepal has experienced impressive growth and modernization, as well as an expansion in its frontlines, even if these benefits surfaced in fits and starts. Just as news organizations were reviewing their overcrowded news agendas in an emergent democracy following the adoption of a multiparty system in 1990, the country plunged into political turbulence. Conflict then became the dominant story, as news outlets’ play of their reporting confirmed the adage that if it bleeds, it leads.
Journalists, too, were thrust into headlines for the atrocities they suffered at the hands of Maoist rebels and the royal government and for their bold defiance of repressive press directives and censorship. As many as 24 journalists have been killed, with hundreds of others arrested, jailed and rendered jobless. When the Maoists abandoned their brutal “people’s war” in the spring of 2006, and King Gyanendra stepped down the next year, journalists were relieved. The anguish of covering one of the deadliest Asian conflicts in modern times was over.
When the War Is Over
What many Nepali journalists did not anticipate was that the worst had yet to come. In a free Nepal they are subjected to more vicious assaults from a new breed of ethno-political rebels and criminal groups. They have to also fight moral battles within their newsrooms about judgments made in covering the government and other competing interest groups. Covering peace has proven far more difficult than covering the blatant drama of war.
Nepal echoes some of the experiences of other postconflict societies, such as East Timor, Chechnya, Kosovo, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Haiti. In particular, journalists’ professional independence and their own engagement with the peace process in the nascent, flawed and troubled democracy have been severely tested. Ideally, postconflict reporting requires more brains than coverage of violence and war and a temperament of restraint. It also calls for a devotion to creativity and a commitment to balance, follow-up, interpretation and independence.
An additional requirement for journalists in situations such as this is their sustained moral support for peace, something that has been a shining spot of Nepali journalism in recent times. In large part, the credit for bringing the Maoist rebels and the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) to negotiation goes to news organizations. Those who worked for privately owned newspapers and a rapidly expanding network of FM radio stations across the country helped stir up public opinion against violence and in favor of peace. Since the peace accord, however, the role that journalists need to assume has expanded.
News on crucial issues of peace-building remains haphazard and superficial. Political dialogue, elections, restructuring and human rights have received sustained attention from the press, but coverage is almost always prompted by government and interest-group sponsored events, speeches and official trial balloons typical of the “he said/she said” construct. The victims of war, relief activities, the displaced, and some 800 missing persons receive sporadic, scattered and half-hearted attention.
“Social inclusion” has become a fashionable idea in Nepal, but news coverage relating to it has been mostly confined to agitating ethnic groups, like the Madhesis of Terai plains, who are fighting for equal representation and autonomy, or gender communities. Many of the 59 officially recognized ethnic groups and some 48 nationalities or marginalized identities, as well as faith communities, remain overlooked by mainstream news media. Children in Nepal, who are among the most vulnerable of all its citizens, were found to be among the 10 overlooked global stories in 2006, according to the U.N. Department of Public Information in its annual survey. Many children here were brought into the conflict—forcibly recruited into the Maoist army—and as many as 40,000 remain displaced.
It has been more than a year since a violent uprising occurred in Terai, resulting in as many as 300 deaths. Months have passed since a large massacre happened in Nawalparasi, a town in Terai, where family members and even minors were dragged out of their homes and murdered. It was about two years ago that Maoist rebels abandoned Rolpa, the epicenter of the conflict, leaving behind ravages of war and mass suffering. Victims of war and the displaced, in many numbers and for many years, have lived a life of isolation and trauma. These and similar other stories merit follow-up, but they are largely ignored, and lessons in the consequences of war, reconstruction and relief efforts and peace-building are lost.
Such oversights demand a review of story formats, datelines and approaches. Reporters from some of Nepal’s leading news organizations lament that news executives are not enthusiastic about doing follow-ups or investigative stories, citing economic logic and safety concerns. Most of the nation’s resourceful journalists live and work in the capital city, and only when conflict flares do a few descend into hot zones in the countryside. It is only rarely that an enterprising story on the complexities of transformation appears in periodicals, such as Nepal and Himal, or in a TV documentary. It will require a roving investigative journalist to break through political rhetoric, which is the mainstay of the nation’s journalism.
Opinion journalism is incredibly diverse and vibrant, and it has fostered public debate and interpretation. No topic is off-limits in periodicals, which include mouthpieces of political parties and interest groups as well as newspaper op-ed pages, television talk shows, radio phone-in programs, and blogs. But debate often is inflammatory and distorted. It typically excludes opponents, demonizes them, and is usually steeped in prejudices and partisan ideologies. Mainstream opinion journalism vacillates between progressive and radical ideologies, with little or no space given for the views of the right or monarchists.
This is also reflected in sourcing and story selection. News abounds with Maoist and SPA attributions, but journalists rarely quote ordinary people or victims. Reporting is focused excessively on personalities, with three main alliance leaders always competing for headlines. Maoists gain prominent coverage in the government news media, which have now become their mouthpieces. Not surprisingly, during a wave of terror launched last year by the Young Communist League (YCL), a Maoist youth wing, the official organs remained silent. The former rebels control the Ministry of Information.
Challenges to Good Journalism
The Maoists scrutinize corporate news media that they accuse of being antipeople, capitalist and pro-American. They have attacked journalists and news organizations, demanding positive coverage. A Maoist trade union, agitating for press workers’ rights, forced three large dailies to temporarily halt publication last year—an unprecedented incident for Nepali journalism.
In the run-up to the Constituent Assembly elections, there are widespread attempts at propaganda and news manipulation by various political parties. These have bred mass confusion. Resentment and fear is building among rival groups and political parties. Worse, a customary culture of secrecy pervades government affairs, despite constitutional provisions for the public’s right to information. The last formal government press conference was organized on November 21, 2006, following the peace accord. Reporters have no direct access to government officials’ discussions and meetings, and they often have to rely on tedious press statements and, if lucky, personal contacts or party insiders.
Reporting conditions in Terai have worsened. Armed Madhesi factions, the YCL, and a dozen other new-born rebel groups accuse journalists of downplaying their cause and demand—with the threat of violence against journalists—romanticized, front-page coverage of their activities. Some demand that national newspapers publish news in local languages. (There are more than 100 languages spoken in the country.) Others force reporters to be their cadres. Rebels have killed two journalists since the peace accord and attacked or abducted others; many others have moved out of the region. “It is ironic,” observes Kunda Dixit, editor of Nepali Times, “it has been much more difficult for the Nepali media to safeguard its independence and ensure the security of journalists in the post-April 2006 period than during the conflict.”
Besides freedom from government control or rebel attacks, journalists’ independence also requires their freedom from conflict of interest, inaccuracies or personal biases. Yet many journalists are partisan scribes. Many reporters simultaneously work for multiple news outlets, as well as for political or business interests. Speculative, inaccurate and unverified news on casualties and the extent of damage often blur the truth and provoke tensions. In the southern town of Kapilavastu last year, inflammatory reporting triggered looting of mosques and vandalism. And in December 2007, there was another exaggerated news report of a discovery of a mass grave near Kathmandu.
Many stories lack background and context about the peace process, such as its genesis and the policies and records of the conflicting parties. News organizations, except for a few with fair reputations, rarely hold budget meetings and have no standardized approaches to news, so this leaves many journalists on their own, relying on personal methods and idiosyncrasies.
The challenges of Nepali journalism are apparent at all levels of the news process: the system, media organizations, individual journalists, and the larger society. These directly affect the quality of press performance required of any postconflict society that is dealing with crucial issues of peace-building. Rank and file journalists have rarely been sensitized to approaches and issues involved with postconflict reporting, although media rights groups and international donors have spent some resources in this area.
To achieve what in Nepal is often referred to as “healthy journalism,” there is a need for a coordinated approach to a newsgathering process that emphasizes a deeper understanding of what is meant by journalistic independence and provides support for creativity, collaborative reporting, diversity and tolerant working conditions. Regular assessments of news coverage are also necessary to prioritize news agendas.
Under the repressive regime, achieving democracy was the overriding concern for Nepali journalists and other civil society groups, and relentless criticism was their means. They earned widespread public support in that cause, and they deservedly basked in the glory of being crusaders. Today, they are doing battle with different issues and circumstances as they strive to reach a level of professional competence in which more will be required than a journalism of assertion.
Dharma Adhikari has worked as a journalist in Nepal. He has been a Fulbright Scholar at the Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Missouri and has held teaching positions at Missouri and at Georgia Southern University. He is now a visiting faculty member at the Institute of Advanced Communication, Education and Research (IACER) in Kathmandu, Nepal.