In the last two decades, the Nepali media has exercised greater freedom than those in other South Asian countries, deregulating radio and unshackling the press. However, the Nepali media faces threats to freedom from over-commercialisation, politicisation, state pressure, and self-censorship. The nexus of crime and politics has made it dangerous for journalists to use their constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms.
Beyond the stereotype of flag-waving journalists and away from the glamour of celebrity media, there are hundreds of young reporters who are struggling to be heard. While the decision to quit media and apply for a manual job in South Korea may be driven by financial needs, when journalists are forced to put their pen down it can only mean one thing: the costs are getting higher in this society of telling truth to power.
A dejected Madhesi journalist told me this week, "The mainstream press in Nepal is still only paying lip service to inclusion and identity, and our voices are getting drowned out."
One of the greatest achievements of the 1990 movement was the opening of the Nepali media space and the democratisation of the radio spectrum. Fearless reporting and critical commentaries through the difficult years of war and during the Gyanendra era 2001-2006 often came at a heavy price. Uma Singh, Dekendra Thapa, Birendra Shah, Krishna Sen, Gyanendra Khadka, and Ambika Timilsina were killed during the conflict and transition. They contributed to strengthening Nepal's democracy and upholding the free press, and lost their lives doing so.
It may be difficult for a self-proclaimed, free-thinking journalist to admit that the Nepali media has become an extension of the political war in which contending editorials and op-eds are perennially engulfed in a bitter war of ideas, each seeking to establish itself by attacking the other. When civil society itself is polarised, it is unrealistic to expect the media to behave differently. But it is when dissenting voices are stifled by political infiltration of the media or political figures buying into press holdings that there is concern for the well-being of the free press. We in the media often forget that it is not our freedom that needs protecting, it is the citizen's right to independent information that we uphold.
A local reporter in Panchthar who works for a mainstream daily told me recently that he had no say in the way his reports are edited by his parent paper in Kathmandu. "Sometimes they get published in a way that compromises our professional integrity," he lamented.
Recently the Information and Communication Minister ostensibly sacked the editor of the state-controlled NTV for broadcasting live an opposition rally. The misuse of state media by the government of the day is not new, all previous governments did it to varying degrees, but it does point to the continued erosion of the public service role of the broadcast media.
More worrying still, professional associations and journalist unions which claim to work in the interest of media practitioners, function as sister organisations of political parties which float their own panels during their elections.
Today, Nepali politics is at a juncture where the old democratic forces led by the NC and UML have allowed their fear of the authoritarian left to uphold the status quo, while the Madhesis and Janajatis allying with the ruling Maoists are siding against the opposition. The lack of mutual trust between these partners of the peace process is at an all-time high.
In such a situation, the role of the media is to moderate the debate and create a positive environment for dialogue and agreement between the two sides. Instead, overtly biased cover stories and editorials make matters worse, polarising the national debate further. Dissenting voices are edited, toned down, or even censored.
The political and economic stakes in media houses are increasingly dictating the agendas they set. But tumbling circulations and the dipping popularity of their products should remind the bosses that there is a difference between selling news and selling detergent.
Stuck on repeat, ROMAN GAUTAM
Nepal's English press seems to have run out of things to say and is making no effort to break out of its funk