Much can happen in two weeks. The Saturday after this column covered the beginning of the newspaper war, The Himalayan Times (THT) responded to The Kathmandu Post's price-cuts, and reduced its price by 50 percent to Rs 1. This marked a further victory for readers and advertisers of both newspapers. But THT's move turned out to be the last straw for the Nepal Media Society (NMS), a trade group of private-sector Nepali-owned newspaper publishers, and it swung into action. Not in a competitive, business-like way, but in a raw, crude, emotionally-laced cry-baby mantra of nationalism.
Through full-page ads, it attempted to turn people against THT and its sister publication Annapurna Post (AP) about a wire service news item that THT had published last November about the proceedings of a conference in India. A few days later, it changed its tactics and started to assert that foreigners (translation: Indians) should not be allowed to invest in the "sensitive" Nepali print-media. That doing so would pose a threat to Nepal's sovereignty, and, as the TKP editor Prateek Pradhan (who earned a degree in journalism in New York) put it, would lead to the 'Sikkimisation of Nepal'.
Before 1991, there were only two broadsheet dailies: Gorkhapatra and The Rising Nepal and the state ran them as it still does. Now there are more than 12 broadsheets, all run by private money which has been invested in attracting talented journalists, to upgrade printing technology, and to market and distribute newspapers. Good Nepali journalists today enjoy greater job mobility.
Readers also have a wider choice and advertisers have a pick. Newspapers have competed with one another and with other forms of media for subscribers' fees and advertising rupees, and most have done well. Indeed, the Nepali print media sector is growing like any other commercially driven industry. All these are positive achievements that should help build the self-confidence of those who run newspapers in Nepal.
Against this backdrop, the argument that print-media sector is too 'sensitive for national interests' to allow foreigners to put their money in is a convenient piece of fiction. It is propped up to safeguard the narrow interests of the NMS byaparis, who, doubting their own abilities, worry that foreigners might just run newspapers well and give better value to readers and advertisers, thereby decreasing their share of the advertisement pie.
Since they cannot share this worry publicly, they have to have it wear the daura-suruwal of nationalism. Nice trick, but print media is no more sensitive to national interests than, say, building hydropower dams or running trainings of Nepali journalists paid by foreign funds. Saying that foreign investment in print-media is detrimental to Nepal's sovereignty is an insult to the intelligence of Nepali readers. It also misleads others as to how the ad market works.
As Pratyoush Onta argued in this paper two years ago when THT first appeared on the scene, no commercially-run newspaper, no matter how well funded, can hope do well in any market by offending local sensibilities (see: 'What to do when big brother knocks', #55). The logic of the ad market, therefore, acts as an in-built deterrent against any newspaper issuing outrageous claims. That means, if anything, both THT and AP have no choice but to be more Nepali than other newspaper. Meantime, we can rest assured that just as Nepali society's ijjat does not depend up on what Miss Nepal wears, Nepal's sovereignty too does not depend what the what the owners of private-sector newspapers say to protect their own interests.
As for the argument allowing foreigners run print-media would lead to the 'Sikkimisation of Nepal', all one can say that the good editors seems to have too little faith in his compatriots to make decisions for themselves.