No one should be surprised about how both sides in the raging media war have activated their Dirty Tricks Depts. Bribing officials or hiring hoodlums to control the market is standard operating procedure in nascent capitalism. Cutthroat price wars come with the turf. Maligning the competition is accepted practice.
So, when The Himalayan Times (THT) and The Kathmandu Post (TKP) got into a mutually destructive competition to undercut each other on the newsstands two weeks ago, all we could do was hope that better sense would prevail. Alas, instead of improving content to earn reader loyalty, the mortal combat got nastier.
And when the anti-THT broadsheet cartel, Nepal Media Society, dragged out a decayed debate about the birthplace of Buddha into unnecessary controversy, it simply exposed the intellectual bankruptcy of our media moguls. When you stoop so low, you lick the dirt. The jingoism escalated and the two sides burnt copies of each other's papers on the streets.
A mob pelted stones on APCA House on 29 January, hurting one reporter. Mob fury is unpredictable. Had the attack on THT claimed innocent lives, it would have been impossible to exonerate the Nepal Media Society. The media cartel couldn't have chosen a worse time to resolve its longstanding rivalry with The Himalayan Times. The country is in crisis: the insurgency is into its eighth bloody year, the monarchists are in no mood to relent, mainstream parties are agitating, students are raising republican slogans. All we need is internecine warfare in the media to complete the picture of total chaos.
Kailash Sirohiya, Jamim Shah, Mahendra Sherchan and Pushkar Lal Shrestha must know they are playing with fire. They are all too well-informed to claim innocence if their jingoism had turned into a repeat of the media-instigated madness over Rhitik Roshan's non-remarks.
What spooked these media heavyweights at this point in time? The rumor in town is that Nepali media bosses are having sleepless nights worrying about more Indian private media competition over the horizon. Several regional conglomerates are said to be eyeing the Nepali media market, lured by advertising growth potential.
Sahara India, with interests in aviation, trading and finance, is believed to be contemplating a grand entry into Nepali media mainly to safeguard its future business interests here. The fate of the FM and terrestrial television of the Kantipur Group, satellite telecast of Spacetime and print ventures of Kamana publications would be in double jeopardy if corporate India made a dramatic entry.
Merchants prefer not to incite violence: instability is never in the interest of business. So, perhaps Nepal's media moguls know something the rest of us don't. Otherwise, why dig up an obscure two-month-old story that had died a natural death?
The current controversy has also raked up another issue: can one media house be trusted with the control of print, radio, television and the Internet? The Kantipur Group's coverage of the present controversy shows exactly why such monopoly is dangerous. The same vitriolic coverage of its rival media comes out of its FM, television, print and Internet outlets. In normal times, Kantipur would have made a spectacle of itself by doing all this. But at the time of multiple crises in the country, a media monopoly, in cohort with a cartel that it dominates, could unleash unimaginable disaster. This is where the regulatory role of government should be visible. But it isn't.
The issue of foreign investment in the Nepali media needs to be resolved once and for all. If we can do without it, let's legislate against their entry into our holy country. Television would be forced to take up the Nepal One model of uplinking from India, the print shibboleths will be saved from the competition and degenerate into a series of Rising Nepals. We have seen free competition and free press aren't complementary. The media can't be guided by market fundamentalism in a country like ours.