The front page of the 9 October issue of Jana Aastha, a left-leaning vernacular weekly, carried a story headlined: A ColoUrful evening in Film city. Written by Bishwamani Subedi and Yadavprasad Pandey, it concerned the alleged prostitution, sexual escapades and love affairs of those in the Nepali film industry.
Sadly, this was not out of the ordinary for the paper, leafed through by many for its insider police and army gossip, but considered, like many of the vernacular weeklies, to fall short of professional standards. But what was out of the ordinary, even for the sleaziest of vernaculars, was a photograph of a naked woman that accompanied the last story. Its caption sadistically read: "Do you recognise this Nepali heroine?"
The actress in the photograph, Shrisha Karki, hung herself at her home in Chabahil six days later in a case that shook the film industry over Dasain. It is not hard to imagine the intense degradation the young woman must have felt in her last days. What support would she have possibly received from a society obsessed with women's sexual purity? Anyone who looks at her photograph can measure her vulnerability: in it, she stares up from a hunched-over position in bed, her face contorted in fear, her body frozen in humiliation. It is obvious that the photograph was taken against her will. Karki's is the face of a victimised woman pleading, unmistakably, for some decency from her victimiser.
This was a decency that Jana Aastha's editor, Kishore Shrestha, did not extend to her.
Shrestha's decision to run the photograph has reared ugly allegations about the sordid underworld of journalism. Film artists claim that Shrestha had been using the photograph to extort the actress. According to them, the picture was taken a year and a half ago by a photographer and a policeman who has since retired, Uddav Bhandari, after inviting Karki to an apartment and forcibly stripping her, with the help of a film director; it was their intention to blackmail her into prostitution. The actress filed a complaint immediately after the incident, but the police were slow to act on it. She went to meet the photographer, but could not retrieve the film. According to film artists, Bhandari gave the photograph to Shrestha, who used it to extort her, even after her engagement. He ran the photograph in his paper after Karki refused to give in to his demands.
Krishna Malla of the Film Artists' Association says that the organisation is pursuing a variety of legal recourses. These avenues, however, are limited. The Film Artists' Association helped file a plea with the police-while Karki was still alive-requesting that strong action be taken against Shrestha. But the maximum punishment for defamation is a Rs 5,000 fine and a sentence of two years. The public offence law against indecency carries a maximum punishment of Rs 10,000, a two-year sentence, and damages. According to public interest advocate Gopal Sivakoti Chintan, punishment for such crimes usually amounts to a fine of five or ten rupees, and limited jail time, if any. There are no laws in Nepal to punish those who instigate suicide. A bill on journalists' code of ethics, which bars the publication of photographs without permission, is stuck indefinitely in parliament. With the help of women's rights advocates Shanta Thapaliya and Sapana Pradhan Malla, Karki's family is now proceeding with murder charges against Shrestha, in a case that, according to Chintan, could set a new precedent for Nepal's murder law.
Film artists have formed a committee for this cause, and are also lobbying media organisations to hold its members accountable. The Nepal Film Directors' Association has pressed complaints at the Nepal Press Council and the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, asking that action be taken against Shrestha. Acknowledging that Shrestha violated Karki's right to privacy and instigated her death, the Press Council's Chairperson Harihar Birahi has said that the Press Council can issue a warning, demand an apology, and work to revoke Shrestha's press identity card. The Federation has been meeting to deliberate over its response.
The office of Jana Aastha remained closed throughout the Dasain holidays, and neither Shrestha nor the two authors of the article have surfaced. In the meanwhile Biswamani Subedi has taken out a notice claiming that Karki's suicide proved his story's allegations to be true; he has exposed, in the process, his own ignorance of privacy laws and journalistic ethics. The paper's assistant editor resigned after public outcry over the incident mounted. Police at the Hanumandhoka district office have said that the search for Shrestha is on.
Would this case have received such attention if Karki had not lost her life for it? Most probably not. It is an open secret that most vernacular weeklies are backed by various political parties, or cliques within them. The political patrons of Jana Aastha are said to be the Bam Dev Gautam clique of the CPN (UML). These patrons have never, till now, had to question their own moral standing, and their commitment to Nepali women by backing such a substandard, anti-women rag.
Strangely, despite the overt misogyny of Jana Aastha's treatment of Karki, women's rights activists have been slow to organise dissent against this incident. There is plenty they could do to address the widespread denigration of women in the media, and social double standards in demanding sexual purity from women. One problematic but typical response to Karki's death has been to blame the victim. An example: while supporting Karki, the Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Studies has also suggested that the film industry keep its activities respectable. Another response from a film industry journalist was: "Actresses with bad morals are also polluting Nepali society." (Needless to say, most activists and journalists are not of the breed that necks openly on the couches of Himalayan Java).
Manju Thapa of Asmita has been quick to speak against the preying of women in the media after this incident. To return to the 9 October issue of Jana Aastha: the only other story concerning women on the front page was headlined: Manisha's Lover in a Brawl. The story reported a scuffle in the Everest Hotel's disco, where actress Manisha Koirala's former boyfriend was supposedly ogling, while drunk, a show of "young women in transparent clothing". In fact the former boyfriend and his wife were having a quiet dinner elsewhere in the hotel. None of which has anything to do with Koirala: Jana Aastha was simply smearing her name in the mud, in a casual show of contempt for an accomplished Nepali woman.
Such prevalent double standards pose a challenge to women's rights activists, who are, let us hope, not too busy with their party politics or NGO projects to act on this case. After all, Shrisha Karki is not on trial here. Nor is the film industry. Kishore Shrestha, Bishwamani Subedi and Yadavprasad Pandey of Jana Aastha are on trial. The police are also on trial, to route out police complicity, if any, in this case. And the sponsors of Jana Aastha are most definitely on trial.
The entire Nepali media faces a serious challenge at this time. Krishna Malla has been heartened by the media's support against Jana Aastha: "The press is very aware. I believe we will receive justice because of the coverage the media has given this incident." But stamping out corruption in the media will take serious effort. The Nepal Press Council and the Federation of Nepalese Journalists must not only penalise Jana Aastha in the strongest terms possible, they must actively enforce more ethical standards in their member organisations. Media houses must aggressively flush out those among them who are violating their profession's code of ethics.
If such steps are taken, they may be the only meaning to be salvaged from the death of a brutishly hounded and hunted-down young woman.