Nepali Times Asian Paints
State Of The State
Coping with court jesters


In the royal council of ministers chaired by the king, the competition to become the chief court jester is a keen one. Left to himself, vice-chairman Tulsi Giri has a good chance. As the most loyal of the royal propagandists he is famous for pronouncements like "we have broken the Maoists' spine".

Foreign Minister Ramesh Nath Pandey gives Giri strong competition. He thinks he has convinced the international community about the constitutionality of his chairman. Home Minister Kamal Thapa is an expert at inventing invectives to deride dissent. But none of the above can match the panache of our very own misinformation minister Shrish Shamsher Rana.

Connoisseurs of artful harangue have an earful listening to all the king's men every night on television. Most of what they say is so tasteless and off-putting that only the state media runs the entire statements-the rest do them a favour a by running just excerpts. It seems minister Rana isn't content to be just the arbitrator of good journalism. He also wants to be the monitor, regulator, prosecutor and the judge. He hinted that a 'professional body' is to be formed to keep independent media in check. Now that a more high-profile all-in-one royal commission created to fight 'corruption' has been silently cremated, Mr Rana may have to rethink his strategy.

In this age of doublespeak, words like objectivity, impartiality, neutrality and professionalism have become the hot favourites. Rana and his ilk are wont to deride the 'one-sided' view of journalists of the democratic persuasion. A caucus of journalists loyal to the regime has been created to counter the influence of media-persons committed to peace and democracy. We are told by the self-appointed moral police of the press that journalists should cease to be activists and maintain their neutrality. They say we are biased and should strive for professionalism.

Crusading against political bias in the independent media is usually the preoccupation of elitists. In a profession that deals with public issues such as journalism, law and education, the line separating objectivity with activism is extremely thin. Should lawyers defend serial killers? It is a question that has vexed media for generations. No code of conduct can lay down the rules when subjectivity has to be the ultimate consideration.

Consider a hypothetical situation where a publicity-conscious terrorist informs a BBC reporter his intention to blow up Big Ben at a certain date and time. Should reporters keep the confidence of the source, watch the destruction and report the tragedy as an impartial observer or should they inform the police and protect the monument? When democracy is being dismantled, when its basic freedoms are in jeopardy do we continue with journalism-as-usual or is there a higher calling? Is it sufficient to be 'objective' about a threat that is determined to wrest away your freedom?

Journalistic ethics are to society what morals are to a person-a set of values that give meaning and purpose to human life. When the constitutionality of a regime is itself questionable, the government has no moral authority to demand accountability from any professional, not even when they are on its own payroll.

A crisis of confidence has begun to afflict even the security ranks. During the civic polls a group of dedicated soldiers in plainclothes went to a polling booth in Kathmandu and demanded that their thumbnails be marked. They said that they weren't interested in casting their votes but needed proof of having voted to keep their commanding officer in good humour. Did they act according to the tenets of professionalism or did they violate their oath?

There is more to the profession of journalism than mere reporting. At the very least journalism is an act of interpretation and subjectivity can't be divorced from any activity that requires the use of personal judgement.

Messrs Giri, Pandey, Thapa and Rana come from a very long line of court jesters dating back to Shakuni, a wacky manipulator in Mahabharata. However outrageous their pronouncements, they serve a purpose.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)