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Lessons from Nepal


What the media situation in Nepal brings home more than anything else is how soft journalism and journalists have become in India, in comparison.


Nepal finds very little space in the Indian press.

CLAMPING down on communications only makes people more resourceful. Even as a popular weekly newspaper was describing the condition of trees on Kathmandu's streets, as Channel Nepal was putting out news bulletins on reformed drug addicts and rural artisans and Radio Sagarmatha, the first community radio station in South Asia, was reduced to playing music, the country's journalists were monitoring the silenced phone lines for odd pockets of time when they would suddenly spring to life for an hour or so. With a ban on both telephone and the Internet, they would sneak into diplomatic missions to get out news onto an Internet site which came into existence, its url known only to a few. Indian journalists in the country used passengers at airports to get across their despatches, unless they had satellite phones.

Dramatic blackout

Before the ban on telephones and the Internet and news censorship came into effect, till about 10.30 the first morning, one of Nepal's best known journalists managed to get out on e-mail a short article to people on his mailing list who were outside the country. On Monday last week, an e-mail came around from an unnamed journalist pleading with recipients to forward to all, and not attempt to reply to the id he was using. He had sneaked into a diplomatic mission to send it out. "My fingers tremble as I write," he said. His media organisation was the biggest in Kathmandu, and was encircled by soldiers. An army major was sitting in the newsroom. Fellow journalists had been arrested. The telephone or the internet could not be used to contact anybody in the city. Please, he begged, put pressure on your governments to do something. The same day, Taranath Dahal, president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists and an outspoken critic of what both the Maoists and security forces were doing to the media, was picked up outside the U.N. office and taken to an army camp.

The dramatic blackout in communications, that will be almost two weeks old by the time this column is published, has made the news because it is so drastic. But in fact communications facilities for journalists here have been dwindling for some time. Because Nepal finds so little space in the Indian press we do not know that the Maoists had in fact been steadily reducing communication access by destroying or damaging telephone fax and internet facilities in the countryside. To prevent these from being further destroyed in other areas, the security forces have seized communications installations, thereby making them equally inaccessible to scribes and local people alike. And journalistic movement had also become steadily restricted as blocks of villages are declared out of bounds to journalists by the Maoists.

Miles ahead

What the media situation in Nepal brings home more than anything else is how soft journalism and journalists have become in India, by comparison. Our press freedom is three generations old, they have had a free press for all of 15 years, though things began to get tough when the ceasefire collapsed in 2003. In those 15 years, despite the existence of government-owned newspapers, the press in Nepal has flourished. The climate was so enabling that two Indian media ventures found it profitably to set up shop there, published two newspapers and running a TV channel. What is more, Nepal became a hub for media conferences and workshops, and generated an entire cottage industry in conflict reporting. Its own journalists after all had more experience in this genre than any of us in India, except for the brief burst of reporting from Kargil.

The reach of community radio

India has no community radio worth the name thanks to government paranoia and public indifference. Nepal had 54 stations that have sprouted over the last seven years. And only the villages which received these and community radio enthusiasts in South Asia know just what it means to have these suddenly snuffed out, as happened last week. There have been conflicting reports: one version says they have all been closed except Radio Sagarmatha, another says they are alive but reduced to only playing music.

Journalist trade unions in India have been partly destroyed by the contract system of employment and by their own decline into irrelevance. The ones in Nepal are active, because journalists' lives depend on their being so. For every single month of the last six months there have been incidents involving scribes. Of being sent to prison by security forces, of being tied to a tree and humiliated or tortured by the Maoists, of being grilled by soldiers for something that has appeared, or of being kidnapped from their offices. Some months there are two incidents.

Help lines for journalists

Journalists in India do not lose too much sleep over the state of their profession or have active help lines for those in the moffusil areas who might need their help. In Nepal they maintain a hotline for journalists in distress. What's more if you go to Kathmandu, as Indian journalists frequently do, because there are so many South Asian media gatherings held there, you realise that they do a lot more work on the state of their press. Their Press Council is more active and journalists' bodies there have done a painstaking review of their own press laws and their shortcomings. Given the size and resources of our press, we do comparatively little. This year it will be 10 years since the Indian Supreme Court decreed that the airwaves belong to the public and that the government must set up a public authority to allocate frequencies. That authority never came, but where is the media or civil society watchdog that has raised its voice in protest?

It is also instructive to note that international media watchdogs such as the International Federation of Journalists, Reporters Sans Frontieres and the Committee to Protect Journalists are kept in business by atrocities against journalists in Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and, to a lesser degree, in Pakistan. India does not figure that much. The most serious assault on press freedom here is usually invisible, even as it is growing. It is self censorship prompted by commercial self-interest, or a lack of resources assigned to reporting, or plain laziness. But we make up for it with colour and gloss, so you won't notice.

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