Nepali Times
State Of The State
Dahal in the dock


The rule of thumb in assessing the status of press freedom is rather simple: if the name of a reporter appears anywhere except the byline, journalists are probably in trouble. Early this week, Himalmedia, publishers of this newspaper, experienced an embarrassment of abundance in terms of media attention.

Our reporters were hogging print headlines, audio-visual media was interviewing editors and publishers had a bevy of high-profile visitors expressing solidarity. Like most media persons, we wish we had been spared the attention because it came after the shock of facing the repeated wraths of Maoist hoodlums.

After the attempted waylaying of the CEO and arson at the distribution office, Himalmedia was subjected to what Maoists call Bhautik Karbahi-physical assault. On Sunday afternoon, commandoes trained in unarmed combat stormed into the office, bullied staffers, banged furniture and beat anyone that tried to reason with them.

Ostensibly, this show of strength was caused by a story in Himal Khabarpatrika that exposed excesses of labour unions affiliated to CPN-Maoist, the leading party of the ruling coalition. Pushpa Kamal Dahal is still the chairperson of this political party in addition to being the prime minister of the country.

Like most leaders of radical groups, Dahal is adept at wearing multiple masks. He tailors his responses to suit the expectations of the audience. With industrialists, there is nobody as committed to the cause of free enterprise as the supreme leader of the YCL. But YCL commandos know that their chief approves of their violent antics in private.

Two days after his cadre attacked Himalmedia, the prime minister told the national conference of South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) in Dolakha that he was committed to institutionalising the freedom of the press.Salikram Jamarkattel, the Maoist labour boss and CA member is known to be personally loyal to Dahal and is the party's money bag. The Maoists intensified their attacks on media immediately after their chairperson had promised to prosecute them.

It will be stretching credulity a bit too far to believe that Jamarkattel's henchmen pounce upon the media without prior clearance from the party's high command. If the CPN-Maoist has degenerated to such an extent that its command and control structure doesn't work anymore, then that's an even bigger reason to worry about the future of the peace process.

Either Jamarkatel is lying (he admits that his men were involved) or his chairperson isn't telling the whole truth. In either case, the Maoists need to review their strategy towards the media. They may find it inconvenient to admit now, but there is no denying that it was the oxygen of media coverage that helped the fire of insurgency blow into an inferno. Part of the reason behind media munificence towards the Maoists was pure romanticism. Revolutionaries fascinate scribes of all stripes. But there was also an element of hope that the guns of the Maoists may force mainstream politicians to mend their ways.

Fed up with the follies of Girija Prasad Koirala, frolics of Sher Bahadur Deuba, frivolities of Madhab Nepal and sheer foolhardiness of Gyanendra Shah, a section of the Nepali intelligentsia, which included some influential journalists, sincerely believed that the Maoists might become harbingers of change in an ossified Nepali society. Let's not hesitate to admit it: we were taken for a ride.

The Maoists aren't just an insurgent group now, they are in power. And when a ruling party throttles the press, the onus of proving its innocence lies with the leadership. If indeed Dahal, Mahara and their fellow-travellers are unaware of the fact that their musclemen have been specifically targeting those individuals and organisations that were at the forefront of democratic struggle, they have clearly lost their moral claim to lead the government.

Finger pointing isn't enough. Dahal needs to prosecute 'infiltrators' bent upon undermining one of the most glorious achievements of the April Uprising-freedom of the press.

Then there is always the last resort of the incompetent: if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Dahal has threatened to pull out of government once too often. He needs to keep empty threats on hold and begin reining in his own cadres so that he can concentrate on leading the government by example rather than by sermons alone.

The Maoists have been running their campaigns of intimidation for quite some time. Meddling with the media may prove to be the last straw. Dahal needs to prove quickly that he is still as good at damage control as he used to be, mend his ways, weed out toxic cadres and show integrity in what he says. No one is indispensable in the dog-eat-dog world of mainstream politics.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)