Nepali Times
Keep the window open

Our self-esteem has sunk so low that it sometimes takes outsiders to point us out our plus points. And so it is with our media. Many here saw King Gyanendra's October Fourth move as regressive, but it is also true that most of our freedoms are intact. There is so much free expression that not a day goes by without multiple rallies on the streets of the capital. And Nepali media is freer today than it has ever been. The pro-Maoist papers have restarted, the political mouthpieces of the various parties are at the vanguard of their pro-democracy agitation, the private corporate media is vibrant and growing, news and current affairs on community FM stations have transformed the way many Nepalis receive information, and soon private television will change the media landscape beyond recognition.

In fact, we can say without bragging that in the post-emergency and post-ceasefire months, Nepal has enjoyed one of the freest media in the world. Even traditionally out-of-bounds subjects have become fair game. We don't know how long this window of opportunity will last, and we don't know whether it was unintended or a deliberate strategy to allow society to let off steam during the royal interregnum. Either way, when the king made himself a political player by sacking the prime minister on October Fourth he exposed himself to unprecedented censure and comment in the Nepali media. That may be why the king himself has made the unprecedented move to go to the people via the mainstream media to present his case.

Actually, the reason certain areas of national life are not written about today has less to do with official sensitivity than with the media's own inertia and squeamishness.

The pre-requisite for true democracy is citizens' participation. And participation is not possible without a free press. A free press is oxygen for democracy, and must be defended by its maximum application. Media freedom, like democracy itself, cannot be taken for granted. That freedom is necessary today in Nepal to ensure the accountability of our rulers, be they elected or appointed. It needs a government that gives media that space, and also a media that has no other bias but a bias for freedom, fairness and pluralism.

While we have this window of freedom, there are uncertainties. Some of the draconian and arbitrary laws that have been used to suppress the press still exist and could be activated at any time. Our present liberty, therefore, may be a lie. It is a freedom that can be terminated at anytime.

On 3 May, we celebrated World Press Freedom Day. It was a time to reaffirm our belief that press freedom, democracy and development are closely interlinked. The Nepali people have now got accustomed to a free press and the democratic process. Those who say that we are not ready for democracy or do not deserve a free press demean and insult the people. Freedom of expression is not just about the media, it is about the peoples' freedom. By speaking up for press freedom, the media is defending not just itself, but the peoples' right to know.

In our region, the threats to free press today stem not from overtly malevolent forces, but from a state structure that uses business pressure points to manipulate and control the media. A free press can therefore be threatened even in democratic societies where these freedoms are upheld by the constitution.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)