Nepali Times
State Of The State
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Then the curse of history strikes the angst of geography, debris from the collision is scattered far and wide. No event in Nepali history, not even the royal coronation of 1974 brought in as much media attention to this country as did the royal massacre last week. Twenty-five years ago, the paparazzi had to be lured with the promise of celebrity royalty in Shangri La. This time, they came on their own, attracted to royal gore like vultures to carrion. When hotels are full of hacks instead of tourists, you know your country is doomed.

This was archetypal parachute journalism. Barring a few well-informed writers with an empathy for and understanding of this complicated land, the rest behaved like the US Marines beaching on some remote shore. They don't call them ambulance chasers for nothing. They beg, bully, buy their way to the most bizarre sound bites possible, get their talking heads, their pan of tyre-burning, and then they're off-to Basilan, or Aceh, or Gujarat.

In Kathmandu, it was difficult to get anyone to talk, so they filed on the curse of Gorakhnath, the conspiracy theories, sordid second-hand rumours of a royal love affair, dark predictions of court astrologers, feuds between nobles of the same clan. So what if the cameras set off a few riots just by their presence? ("Great footage we got today on the airport road, yar.")

It didn't help, of course, that here was reality at its most utterly unbelievable. If facts are so grotesque, why invent fiction? This was a royal whodunit that made Dodi and Diana sound like a fairy tale. But even then, we were not satisfied, and we invented wild conspiracies to embellish an already extraordinary tragedy. But if the foreign media was obnoxious by its actions, the Nepali media was obnoxious by its inaction.

Celebrations about the coming of age of Nepali media, it seems now, were rather premature. Nepali media is still at the bottom of the learning curve. The good news is that from here, the only way to go is up. It's never too late to begin.

This was the story: a god-king on a weekend family soiree, a queen with a mind of her own, a lovelorn trigger-happy crown prince, a prince-turned-commoner, another prince barely out of his teens, and a beautiful, intelligent princess who liked to paint. Other assorted royalty enjoying a family get together inside a maximum security palace. Enter the Prince of Darkness. This is the stuff not just of Greek tragedy, but an epic of Mahabharatan proportions. Dhritrastra, the blind king of Kurus in Mahabharata, had a factual reporter in Sanjay and a riveting scribe in Vyasa. But when tragedy struck us in Nepal, most of our journalists were caught napping. Most snored their way through the mourning period, abdicating the terrain to foreign satellite and cable TV and radio which had a field day and did our work for us.

Given the complete lack of information in the days that followed the massacre, Nepal was no different than the days of the Kot Parba. The principle source of information for most people was the bush telegraph. In the age of satellite and Internet, we relied on word of mouth. Radio Nepal maintained a screaming silence for nearly twelve hours after the tragedy, and even then gave official announcements in officialese. No one believed a word they were saying. Commenting on the sorry state of affairs, Hem Bahadur Bista, the former chief of Sagarmatha FM and once head of Nepal TV had this to say: "FM stations simply tagged their services to Radio Nepal and went back to sleep. Even the 'This is Radio Nepal' announcement was broadcast over supposedly independent FM channels!"

The print media, with little or no access to the drama unfolding inside the palace, were reduced to recycling reports from Indian and foreign cable TV channels. Ace Nepali reporters seemed to have no sources of information inside the palace. Part of the explanation may lie in the tight control Narayanhiti maintains over the flow of information as a matter of policy. After all, even the prime minister was informed of the killings a full two hours after it happened. But that is a feeble excuse. Journalists who pride themselves upon accurately forecasting cabinet decisions days in advance should have deep throats within the palace-military complex. They tried to make up for it by culling juicy bits of bazaar rumours and serving them as reports
and analysis.

Nothing epitomises this frame of mind more than the notorious opinion piece by Baburam Bhattarai. It was Soviet-era propaganda at its best, and proved the maxim: "since the completely unbelievable is relatively more believable than the scarcely believable, it makes more sense, if one has to lie, to tell a big lie rather than a small lie". Baburam's piece was untruthful, in bad taste, and came at a volatile time. You could question the editor's judgement. But come on, Home Minister, to put him in jail? By its inept handling of the Kantipur affair, the government has helped shift the focus of attention from a specific instance of incompetence of our national media to the larger issue of freedom of the press. The fact that our so-called national dailies are little more than broadsheet versions of yellow rags of yesteryear has now been eclipsed by this needless controversy.

Here is a government that muddled with the state media, and is now trying to distract attention by meddling with the private media, giving the impression that it is muzzling the press. Refusing to learn from their own mistakes is the defining characteristic of Nepali politicians, and the Ministry of Information and Communication has blundered once again by insisting that foreign journalists acquire accreditation before reporting. In this day and age?

Regulating the press is not only impossible, it is pointless and counter-productive. It gets the rumour mills going, and information-starved people begin to believe the wildest rumours, the wilder the better.

The only institution that can regulate the press is its own professionalism. That will take time to develop, and there are no short-cuts to learning by doing and committing one's own mistakes. By imprisoning media, the government makes matters worse by pushing the press to manufacturing self-justification rather than carrying out self-examination.

As for the palace, the lesson of the crisis is clear: the traditional opacity of the royals is an anachronism that weakens constitutional monarchy. It must open up in future if it is to maintain its dignity. Only transparency can stop the domestic yellow rags and the international gutter press from displaying dirty royal linen.

In India's countryside, villagers cope with black humour. Whenever there is a caste massacre, the first to arrive are the vultures, followed closely by reporters, then the police, and finally the priests. So it is here too. We will know when the cameras of Zee and Star and CNN have finally left the Valley (following Mr Sapkota and the elephant-borne ghosts of dead kings) that at last things are getting back to normal.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)