By Dixit, Kanak Mani
Nieman Reports , Vol. 60, No. 2
Before the 1980 plebiscite, the world of Nepali journalism was mostly form and little content. We called ourselves journalists, but not many of us were that, if you regard journalism first and foremost as a freedom forum to speak truth to the powerful state. The journalistic energy was concentrated in the tabloids like Bimarsa, Samikshya, Dristi and Desantar, which sought valiantly to make up for the lack of civil society, free courts, and political parties.
The reporting tended to be weak, but the papers, printed on cheap newsprint in cold lead type on treadle presses, provided plenty of opinion. These published opinion pieces reflected as much dissidence as was possible under the Panchayat system of government that had been established by King Mahendra in the early 1960's. And the limits on the opinion press varied according to the regime's mood. In those times, if you were not a hack working for the government's Gorkhapatra/Rising Nepal or a regime-sympathizing "Panche" scribe, you were considered a "partisan" journalist. Journalists who did not particularly like the autocracy, but did not want to be associated with the banned political parties, took the path of apolitical journalism--writing and reporting on culture, language, literature, travel writing, and so on.
Journalists pushed the envelope of freedom after 1980 and helped greatly in creating the conditions for the People's Movement of the spring of 1990, when windows were forced open to let in the air of freedom. Public support and market expansion helped buoy the world of journalism. Newspaper distribution expanded with the spread of highways, and economic expansion, in turn, generated advertising, so we found it was possible for broadsheet newspapers to survive with market revenue.
The decades-long pent-up demand for information in a newly literate nation was rapidly filled by several broadsheets, including Kantipur, which was started by some maverick businessmen and touched the pulse of the moment and sold well. Before long, a need was felt for the kind of analysis provided by newsmagazine journalism. Himal Khabarpatrika introduced this genre, which marked the second leap in print journalism after the arrival of Kantipur. And those who had predicted the death of the political weekly had to recant, as the tabloids have remained among us, daring to go where the corporate publications fear to tread. And with a surge in daily or weekly tabloids, journalism spread throughout Nepal.
The countrywide spread of journalism has taken full advantage of new electronic and digital possibilities, including fax, mobile phones, satellite connections, and the Internet. All this has helped the news media play a unifying role in the midst of our unsettled and stressful recent times. Nepali bloggers are active in spreading personalized news and opinion. Compared with other South Asian countries, Nepal's photojournalism and political cartooning have evolved rapidly and now provide reaction and relief as the country has descended into political anarchy and violence.
Since 1990, the Nepali journalists' learning curve has been very steep. In earlier years, we did not take full advantage of our available freedoms because many of us were so inexperienced as journalists, even if some of us were advanced in years. Journalists, for example, did not perform strongly as watchdogs over political parties and governments that came to power after 1990. For a while, in the initial years of the Maobadi "people's war," there was romanticism in the press coverage, and to this day (with exceptions) there is fear among journalists when it comes to covering rebel atrocities. …