Two weeks after the ghastly slaughter at Naryanhiti Palace, the findings of the probe panel have finally brought us closer to the truth. But, like a mirage, the truth keeps receding the closer we get to it as an intrigue-obsessed public finds reality too hard to swallow. They are swayed by the government media's secretiveness, the private media's proclivity for either self-censorship or politically-inspired sensationalism, and the fixation of our Panchayat-era mandarins with information control. We are trapped by the lies.
Official media have been habitual liars on behalf of the government of the day. It is a habit hard to break, and 12 years of democracy has not changed that. All we did was play doleful music, broadcast bland official pronouncements, and vacuous news bulletins that carried lengthy messages from foreign heads of state. We did precious little to quash wild rumours. It took decades for our official electronic media to forfeit public trust, they cannot regain it overnight. The result was that when a crown prince ran amok and killed his entire family there was little Nepal TV or Radio Nepal could do to convince the public that was what really happened.
Citizens deprived of credible and accurate information have grown to believe more readily in a complex untruth than in a simple truth. We will not let the truth get in the way of a juicy conspiracy theory. We insist on believing what a Bollywood actor never said, but we steadfastly refuse to believe what an heir to the throne actually did.
Post-massacre public reaction came in three categories:
those who have the access to information and contacts in high places, and know the truth
those who do not have access to this information, and find it hard to believe the truth
those who know the truth, but find it inconvenient, and therefore peddle conspiracy theories that suit their agenda.
For the first few days after the massacre the only people who knew what really happened were members of our traditionally secretive royal family and those close to them. So the truth remained a secret, locked up in vaults of silence. Bits of facts had started trickling out within hours of the shooting from eyewitnesses and close relatives. But this information never got to the greater public. Indeed, until the probe panel findings came out Thursday night, no government and palace source had actually told Nepalis that royal family members were murdered. If this is what you do, can you really blame the public for believing in conspiracies?
We have to blame the Orwellian information controllers at the two durbars, and a politically-motivated media. Anywhere else in the world, the media's role is to find the facts that point to the truth and then look for an explanation, but most of our politicos and press did the opposite: we looked for a conspiracy theory that fit our political posture and cooked up the facts to fit it. Now that the truth is out, it is clear that the conspiracy theories were themselves a conspiracy.
The officialdom responsible for these serious lapses looked for scapegoats and found the editor and publishers of Kantipur, and in an overreaction that smacked of vendetta, they locked them up.
The future is tinged with uncertainty, and the lesson from this crisis is clear: restoring the credibility and trust of our press by unshackling the state-owned media from government control. We must foster a professional and responsible press committed to pluralism and independence. One day, the truth will set us free.