JANAKPURóUntil the mid-nineties, only the registration clerk in the CDO Office knew the names of newspapers published from this town. In those days, papers were like calling cards of their owners, who used their publications to advance business interests.
With very little advertising other than government notices, the main source of revenue for local newspapers used to be official grants from the information ministry and unofficial doles from bureaucrats, police officers and politicos.
A prominent bookseller remembers how entrepreneurs would beg him to display their papers, knowing full well that nobody was going to pick up a copy. The purpose of the exhibit would be to impress people who came to buy Hindi or English Indian dailies.
The pattern of media consumption changed irrevocably with the Madhes Uprising in 2006. Most 'national' newspapers began to be perceived as pro-Pahadi and anti-Madhes. Local publications increased their print run and began to attract some advertising. The popularity of FM radio, too, helped enhance the prestige of some papers as journalists often worked across several mediums and emerged as regular stringers for national and international broadcasters.
In addition to half a dozen FM broadcasters, at least nine daily newspapers are now published from Dhanusha district alone. Their circulation figures are still closely guarded secrets. But unlike in the past, almost all these dailies can now be bought from newsstands at the bus depot, the railway station or market streets.
The boom in media has not been without problems. There is a severe shortage of trained personnel. Publishers are still opaque about funding sources. Journalists work for a pittance. Most publications do very little to hide their political inclinations. The best person to judge the tilt of local newspapers is often the hawker who has to push them to separate sets of loyalists.
Deep Narayan Sah has been selling newspapers at Janak Chowk for the last 40 years. He has seen editors cowering in front of the anchaladhises of the Panchayat era. He has watched some journalists act like orderlies for officers of the security forces. He has observed politicians handing out cash. He doesn't like to talk about all that. But he pulls no punches when asked about the political loyalties of the publications he sells.
The first local daily to acquire top category classification from the Press Council of Nepal was Janakpur Today. Uma Singh, a journalist associated with this newspaper, was hacked to death by suspected Maoists in January last year. In early March this year, its publisher Arun Singhania was gunned down in the middle of town. Editor of the paper and local BBC Nepali Sewa reporter Brij Kumar Yadav has been repeatedly threatened. Sah dismisses all that with a shrug and pronounces: "Janakpur Today isn't free of shady transactions. Its politics consists of serving the establishment."
Sah is no less scathing in his criticism of the newspaper run with the support of the family of Rajeshwar Nepali, veteran journalist and freedom fighter of 1950s vintage. In his analysis, Jagaran Daily is merely an apologist for Indian interests in Nepali politics. He also dismisses Mithila Dot Com, Tarai Times, Tahalka Dot Nepal, Janakpur Express, Mithilanchal Bishesh, Naya Mithila and Hamari Awaj as mouthpieces of business manipulators, Pahadi communalists, ambitious intellectuals, local administration, high-caste militants, the Maoists and the fixers of construction contracts, respectively.
He may be a newsagent rather than a media analyst, but Sah has seen and heard enough to recognise that independent journalism is merely an ideal. Freedom of the press cannot guarantee that the media are free of all commercial, political or cultural interests. It merely ensures that all those with adequate means are not denied an opportunity to compete in the marketplace of ideas. What is true in Janakpur holds true for the rest of the country.
The media stands to play an even greater role in the political contestations of the future. This could be why investors are willing to bear huge losses and hold on to their niches. With the increasing complexity of the cutthroat competition within the media, the responsibility of media watchdogs will only grow heavier. For observers less experienced than the venerable newsstand owner of Janak Chowk, keeping an eye on the media will be more challenging than ever.
Life support, Publisher's note
The intellectual dilemma, Mohan Bikram Singh
Blow your own trumpet, Indu Nepal
Losing ground, Prashant Jha
Making work work, Ashutosh Tiwari
350 days for new constitution, Ass