Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Death By A Thousand Cuts

The recent troubles of two journalists have put the spotlight on the new pains gripping the profession. Not that the tribe ever really had it easy in Nepal. Under the Ranas, the only place where the dissemination of news and views stood a chance was in exile.
The dawn of democracy promised to bring a new morning for the fourth estate. Publications competed with politicians to capture the public domain. Newspapers became instruments to attain power as well as places to settle scores after the fall.
With the rise of the Panchayat system, the press and the parties fell together. But a new breed of scribes came up. The joie de vivre of the private-sector papers compensated for the staidness of the government press. Many editors masqueraded as critics of the partyless system, while the real crusaders were hurting.
If the palace press secretariat emerged as the chief national editorial board, it did its job with some semblance of order. In the 1960s, one key official was an academic while another had a degree in journalism. The man at the top during much of the 1970s and 1980s at least came to the job with a letter to the editor published in TIME magazine in defense of the crown.
The year of the referendum brought a new spring. Although the Panchayat system got a decade-long extension, the papers, like the still-banned parties, refused to let go of their freedoms. Opposition grew from within the liberal flank of the Panchayat system and was reflected in the weekly press.
When a pancha-cum-turned journalist was shot, the clumsiness of the perpetrator did not diminish the arrival of the new peril. But you still had legions of boisterous men in safari suits raking in their Dasain allowances and government advertisements, while the real opposition was toiling away. So these latter journalists participated as well as covered the movement to restore multiparty democracy in 1990.
The advent of private-sector media houses brought a new breed of young and enterprising people who tended to consider themselves only behind the king, queen and crown prince in the national order of precedence. (Not Maila Baje’s characterization but an actual assertion by a member of that group, made with a tinge of cynicism.)
Times had changed in less assuring ways. A Maoist editor was one of the early high-profile victims of that convulsion. In the aftermath of the Narayanhity carnage, the editor of the largest daily was arrested for printing an opinion piece by a top Maoist. It was perfidious alright but also provided a critical foray into the geopolitical maneuvering preceding the tragedy.
When a tabloid printed that damaging picture that forced the ostensible subject, an aspiring actress, to commit suicide, the editor’s life seemed to hang in the balance. Shortly thereafter, Nepal turned into an internationally certified death zone for journalists.
Sadly, journalists continue to lose their lives. But the increasing danger is one of a death by a thousand cuts. An editor who also happens to be an advisor to the vice-president, who has not endeared him to anyone, is arrested for having printed an advertisement for recruitment in a banned armed outfit.
Another reporter, visible on the increasingly rancorous water resources beat for a leading daily, is prosecuted for sexually harassing a co-worker. There are just too many holes. The story behind the stories is probably already having a chilling effect in the trade.