Addressing a public rally in the heart of Kathmandu last week, Maoist Party Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal declared, "We will no longer tolerate criticism as we have been elected by the people." In a tirade against Kantipur Publications he added, "They continuously criticised us before the CA elections, but now we have become the largest party." Applause greeted Dahal as he advised journalists from other newspapers to think twice before writing anything against the Maoists.
The following day, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) responded: "These remarks from the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, the largest political party in the CA, have raised serious doubts over the Maoists' commitment to free press." It asked Dahal to "make public his party's policy towards the independent press", as if what he said earlier was vague.
What puzzled me about this exchange was not why Dahal said what he did. Perhaps he was playing to the gallery. Perhaps he remains drunk on his party's victory. Perhaps he was testing the limit of what he could say in public. Whatever the case may be, since Dahal's party is on record for murdering and harassing journalists, I found his speech irresponsibly frightening. The FNJ's response was, as usual, tepid and mechanical.
What I found puzzling was why these young people, in their teens and early 20s – the very generation that has seen, experienced and benefited from the free Nepali press since 1990 – welcomed Dahal's remarks with such zeal. It's tempting to dismiss them as brainwashed Maoist cadres. But could it be that those who captain the FNJ and other donor-funded media entities are so used to reacting to the Maoists over the same issues, that they forget how poor a job they've been doing to remind the public why press freedom matters in the first place?
Instead of addressing the Maoist leadership, the FNJ should change its tactics, face the public and explain that press freedom is important on multiple levels.
First, freedom of press makes it easier to empower ordinary Nepalis, even those with no political voice. If the press makes it public how Dalits are ill-treated in certain villages, how migrant labourers are infecting their spouses with HIV, or how the cadres of a certain political party extort money from small businesses, it allows others to use social and political processes to stop the perpetrators from undermining other citizens' rights to enjoy their freedoms.
Second, it aids the flow of investment into the country. Nepal does not have a large capital base. To undertake large infrastructural projects, we need cash from abroad. But no investor wants to risk their money here if they cannot obtain independent third-party information, which is provided by a free press. A muzzled media means vague information for investors, which in turn means fewer investment dollars, which translates into fewer jobs for Nepalis in Nepal.
And third, though it may seem obvious, freedom of press makes it easier for newspapers to be accountable to the truth. Putting the usual high-minded language about democracy aside, let us not forget that the Nepali mainstream media-scape is commercially competitive, and the currency that endures, for reputation and profits, is the verifiable truth that can be reported first. Just as open competition leads to higher quality and better outputs in other spheres of business, it also compels Nepali newspapers to keep their standards high.
Let's hope that next time Dahal makes threats against the press, the FNJ will have the wisdom to find out ways to influence the thinking of his rapturous audience.