Nepali Times
Strictly Business
Lip service, or tongue lashing?


Talking about how Nepal's political parties lack the seriousness to safeguard press freedom is both acutely depressing and mildly hopeful.

It's depressing, because if one compiles a mere six-months worth of news, the catalogue of threats, physical abuses, mental torture and harassment against journalists, with details even of their murders, grows thicker and thicker.

Yet it's also hopeful, because, at least from the lip service that spokespeople of the political parties offer on television, it's clear that our politicians do understand the importance of press freedom. But that hope dissolves into cynicism when the politicians are then unable to explain to their militant cadres why something as intangible as press freedom matters for all Nepali citizens, including those who disagree with or are indifferent to any political ideology.

Just four days ago in Lamjung, YCL activists warned journalists that they would be hacked to pieces. The journalists' only 'crime' was to be on duty to cover a quarrel between the YCL activists and local people.

On Saturday morning, Maoist cadre halted a van belonging to Kantipur Publications on the East-West Highway. They took control of the vehicle, set it on fire, and burnt down not only the vehicle but also thousands of copies of The Kathmandu Post and Kantipur. The driver had dared to do his daily job of transporting the newspapers to subscribers and news stands in Eastern Nepal on the day of a forced shutdown.

On Monday 1 June, on the day of another forced shutdown in Kathmandu, cadres of the Newa Autonomous State routinely stopped vehicles that had press logos, smashed the windows, seized the keys, harassed the journalists, and stopped them from reporting and photographing the hardships faced by many ordinary people when the city was forced to a standstill.

Online visitors to this newspaper's website must have noticed a boxed item that's been there for the past few months. It says: Punish Uma Singh's Killers: End impunity. Uma Singh was a fearless radio journalist in Janakpur. Last January, she was hacked to death in her own apartment. A subsequent on-site investigation by the IFJ found that Singh was killed for her investigative journalism. Despite international condemnation, Singh's killers are yet to be brought to justice.

And then there was the attack against this media house last December. Around thirty Maoist-affiliated muscled goons stormed into our corporate meeting, and beat me up along with 11 other colleagues. We were all left
angry, frustrated and shaken to the core. The then Maoist government subsequently released the two ringleaders who had been apprehended shortly after the incident, and who have since melted into the shadows.

Indeed, these and countless other attacks against various Nepali media outlets and journalists have collectively helped Nepal rank eighth in the world, between Afghanistan and Russia on the CPJ's Impunity Index as a country 'where journalists are murdered on a recurring basis and governments are unable or unwilling to prosecute the killers'.

And that brings us to the part why politicians must re-educate their cadres about the importance of press freedom. They can start by offering three basic reasons.

First, press freedom helps aggregate information. In a country of 30 million people, most of whom are illiterate and poor, no citizen or group can expect to be on top of all the information related to their well-being. Press freedom allows reporters of all stripes and media to widely disseminate reports and analyses about events and people that they believe are of public interest. These reports and analyses, in turn, add layers of nuanced information to help everyone from national policy-makers to village councils, to households and individuals to make decisions about their lives in ways they see fit for themselves. For those Maoist leaders who never tire of emphasising the importance of civilian supremacy, what could be the surest path to such supremacy but promoting press freedom by making it easier for journalists to work?

Second, press freedom allows an exchange of views in the public domain. True, when different versions of the same event are reported, some who are accustomed to getting news from only one source, may fear that the 'truth'
itself gets distorted, thereby confusing the public. But instead of forcing people to believe one thing over another, press freedom allows all to exercise judgment to choose news that they find persuasive. That is, once people have an easy access to multiple viewpoints on any issue, they can then decide for themselves what is right and what is not. Sure, not every citizen is equally enlightened to decide what is what. But since decision-making is a craft, press freedom allows all to practise making decisions about themselves at their own pace based on a variety of information they receive from the media.

Third, press freedom goes hand-in-hand with market-based competition. Of all the attributes on which Nepali newspapers compete, reputation is the only thing that matters for long-term business viability. Reputation in the media business is built up by consistently reporting the verifiable truth, and openly correcting errors as soon as they become known. This fact should reduce the worries of those who say that mainstream newspapers print false news to serve the interests of 'the bourgeoisie'.

Rather, as we have seen again and again, it's the reputation of the perpetrators and their political parties that takes a blow globally when media houses and journalists are threatened, abused, attacked and killed.

Unless our political leaders, especially those of Maoists who make all the right noises about their commitment to build plural democratic societies, seriously educate and train their unruly cadres about the importance of press freedom for Nepal's democracy, their paying mere lip service is as good as their keeping lips sealed against the daily attacks on the press in Nepal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)