Ram Pradhan had just written a hard-hitting editorial suggesting that sovereign Nepalis deserve an explanation for King Gyanendra\'s decision during Dasain to name his son crown prince.
But the public won\'t get to read the editorial. It went into the Tuesday edition of the dummy run of Kathmandu\'s newest English daily, tentatively called The Himalayan, set to hit the stands sometime in November.
"This is what we believe every Nepali is asking today," says Pradhan, a 25-year veteran editor. "We have a four-man, all-Nepali editorial team that decides our opinion, and it will remain that way as long as I am here." This last remark is to assuage critics who have lashed out at the new venture for its Indian links. Rival media groups, politicians and some journalists maintain that foreign ownership of media is detrimental to the national interest and have recently stepped up their opposition.
P Kharel, a former editor at The Rising Nepal, says: "Media is a very sensitive sector and that is why foreign investment should be rejected outright, including in radio and television." Kharel says even India with its tradition of free press does not allow foreign investment in media, so why should we? One of the staunchest critics of Indian entry into Nepali media is MP and former journalist, Raghuji Pant: "It will weaken Nepali independence, dilute our patriotism, give wrong information and confuse Nepalis."
Not everyone agrees. Academic Pratyoush Onta, writing in this paper in August ("What to do when Big Brother knocks", #55), argued that foreign competition would actually enhance professionalism in Nepali media. "What is really at work behind this bogey of nationalism is fear that the mediocrity of those who rule the Nepali media world will be further exposed," Onta wrote.
At his slick new office in Anamnagar, Ram Pradhan brushes aside the criticism: "We're not violating any law, as far as I am concerned, if people say there should be no foreign investment in media then it is their opinion." According to its registration papers, The Himalayan Times (as it is officially called) is published by International Media Network Nepal P Ltd, with Ujjwal Sharma as publisher. Sharma is also publisher of the Nepali daily Himalaya Times brought out by National Media P Ltd.
The new English paper has National Media's Sharma and Ravin Lama, formerly of Stimulus Advertising, as promoters, and start-up capital of Rs 50 million. "If Binod Gyawali and Kailash Sirohiya (of the rival Kantipur group) can publish a newspaper, why can't Ravin Lama and Ujjwal Sharma be publishers?" Lama asks. "We will go by every law in the book."
Kantipur and its English-language sister The Kathmandu Post last month launched a broadside against the new venture, focusing largely on its perceived Indian backing and accusing it of bypassing Nepali law on foreign investment in media. The reports alleged links between International Media and Asia Pacific Communication Associates (APCA) Nepal, APCA India and SAMA Printers. Lama is the common promoter in two (APCA and International Media) separate entities, and a minority shareholder in SAMA, which is a separate Rs 30 million venture.
To make things more complicated, APCA Nepal is a joint venture between Lama and APCA India, and it has foreign direct investment (FDI) clearance to set up an advertising agency and a printing plant. SAMA Printers is a venture between Lama, SP Singh (who used to be Executive Vice-President at the Kantipur Group until April 2000) and AN Sen, an Indian national. SAMA has FDI clearance for running a commercial printing operation, which is now ready for trial runs. It is to print both Himalaya Times and The Himalayan and could take up other available print jobs.
APCA India is a venture of Times of India staffers chaired by Dilip Padgaonkar, and also has "persons of Indian origin"-now citizens of other countries including the US-and "non-resident Indians" as investors. APCA had been planning to invest in Nepal since early this year, when it approached other Nepali media companies including Kantipur and Himalmedia for possible collaboration.
Independent media watchers in Kathmandu say the real issue is competition between advertising agencies, including Indian joint ventures. Nepal's advertising industry is growing at a phenomenal 24 percent a year, and competition is heating to get a greater share of that pie.
Nepali law is silent on foreign investment in media. The Industrial Enterprises Act, which defines industries, lists "printing" and "press" separately as service industries. The Foreign Investment and Technology Transfer Act allows FDI in all industries except those on the negative list-which does not include printing or the press. FDI, for example, is not permitted in real estate, trading or consultancies. But because investors don't have to disclose the source of investment funds, it is difficult to say if the capital in even industries on the negative list is truly Nepali.
"There's no law barring foreign investment in the media," says Satish Kharel, a lawyer. "If there is a policy level decision somewhere, I'm not aware of it." The law, however, does require the editor of a newspaper to be a Nepali national.
The Himalayan has already put together a team of about 40 journalists, mostly Nepali, a handful of Indian polishers to improve English copy, and a full-fledged marketing operation. "We will keep the foreigners until our staff are capable of taking over," says Pradhan, and hastens to add, "even with them around it is we Nepalis here who decide what goes into the paper."
Pradhan says The Himalayan will set up fully staffed news bureaux in five Nepali cities, and market the product in both India and other South Asian countries. The 12-page paper is to have an initial print run of 15,000 copies.