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State of Media and FES-Supported Activities in Nepal in 2001

Annual Report


I. Media Status

For the first time since the restoration of multiparty democracy in the kingdom in 1990, the press in Nepal has had to exercise considerable self-censorship on account of the declaration of a state of emergency by King Gyanendra on November 26, 2001. Recommended by the democratically elected Nepali Congress government headed by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, the state of emergency, aimed at quelling the armed Maoist rebellion in various parts of the country, will last for at least three months, i.e. till February 25, 2001. It can, however, be extended if endorsed by two-thirds of the parliament within three months of the declaration of the emergency. (More than 2,500 people have been killed in the course of the Maoist rebellion that started in 1995.)

I.1. Media Environment

The Terrorist and Destructive Activities (Prevention and Control) Ordinance 2001 states: "Despite the emergency, expression of views, running of presses and publications, migration and operation of communication systems can take place as usual without however infringing the Terrorist and Destructive Crimes Control and Punishment Act and the Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal." But there is also a clause in the directives which mentions that "the government can declare a terrorist affected area or terrorist individuals", which thus gives the government sweeping power for arrest and other forms of action. In the course of the emergency, several journalists have been arrested. Some of them have already been released and others continue to be in detention. Several have gone underground. According to some of the journalists arrested but released later, they were treated shabbily. Most newspapers that were considered close or sympathetic to the Maoists have stopped publication and a number of their editorial staff either continue to remain in detention or have underground.

Journalists have been "advised" not to write anything that might "lower the morale of the army" or " boost the morale of the Maoists". As a result, there is hardly any reporting on Maoists activities and the army action against the Maoists, except for regular news releases issued by the Defence Ministry. The broadcast media, except for FM stations with highly limited reach, are government-controlled. As such, there are complaints from various quarters of the civil society and professional organisations that the media need to work harder for more news pertaining to the Maoists instead of relying wholly and solely on government sources alone. Several of the broadsheet dailies and also the government-owned media have their own correspondents in most parts of the country. These correspondents have had to virtually fold their hands as far as the Maoists activities are concerned. They and their seniors at the news desk fear that they might be arrested on charge of "boosting" the morale of the Maoists or "lowering the morale" of the army. Photos and visuals of the army in action or of Maoists, either dead or alive, are not carried. Likewise, newspaper articles and editorials remain silent on most key issues related to the Maoists, unless the comments are in support of the government action. The Ministry of Information and Communication had issued a list of do's and don'ts for the media. Human rights organisations and senior advocates were to speak against such directives. But the directives have not been withdrawn.

The recent change in content, style and practice of the newspapers is in marked contrast to the earlier times when noted that these very media used to publish articles and statements signed by Maoists leaders, allocating prominent space. Human rights organisations have also expressed concern over the existing state of media situation. It seems that the present media environment will continue till the state of emergency is lifted. How long that period might be is only a matter of conjecture at this stage.

I.2. Public Dissatisfied

Sections of the public are complaining against the failure of journalists to inform them about the various details concerning army operation against the Maoists and the actual situation of the rebels. At seminars and talk programmes, various speakers have urged the journalists not lose sight of their professionalism. Their emphasis is that professionalism allows a lot of room for journalists to report accurately and yet responsibly even under a state of emergency.

II. News Media

II.1. Newspapers

In sharp contrast to the situation till ten years ago when there were only two broadsheet news dailies, there are now as many as ten such publications-all brought out from Kathmandu and four of them in English. Four of these large dailies-two in Nepali and two in English-were launched in 2001. Likewise, the number of newspapers and magazines published from not only the capital but also in other parts of the country has also increased dramatically. The main reason for the upsurge is the existing Constitution and laws that guarantee that no newspaper's licence will be cancelled nor any press be seized for publishing materials that might not be liked by the government of the day. This is true even during the state of emergency, although during such a crisis newspaper editors can be arrested and newspapers stopped from publishing certain reports and/or articles.

Heavy investments have been made on the broadsheet newspapers. But no less than half of them are doing with less than 20 per cent of their space being filled with advertisement. Three other broadsheets folded up in the recent years. Perhaps some of the existing ones, too, will meet the same fate. Here are also rumours that some of these publications have a strong political backing and hence finance might not necessarily be a major problem. It is credibility they are after. Two of the existing Nepali broadsheets-Nepalko Samacharpatra and Kantipur-started their eastern Nepal editions from Biratnagar in 2001, enabling them to increase their circulation sharply while their rivals from Kathmandu arrive late in the afternoon in most of the eastern region. These publishing houses are also thinking of bringing out western editions from Nepalgunj. Local newspapers in these regions are worried that the big dailies, printed locally, will eat into small newspapers' circulation figures.

For a country with only about 45 per cent literacy, there are surprisingly a large number of newspapers. According to the latest report issued by the Press Council of Nepal, there are 205 regular news publications in circulation-35 dailies, 147 weeklies, 10 fortnightlies and 13 monthlies. A large number of others also came out on and off. If there were 481 news publications registered till 1989, there are as many as 1620 such publications now. Needless to overemphasise, more than half the registrations are in Kathmandu, which also takes the major share of regular publications in any single category. All publications with nationwide reach originate in the capital city. All "A" category publications listed by the audit bureau of circulation originate in Kathmandu.

No newspaper has been registered in 19 out of the kingdom's 75 districts. Even in districts recording registrations of newspapers, publications are confined to mere presence of registration with the licensed publication either out of circulation or coming out erratically. Because of poor road and transportation network, national newspapers reach only one-third of the district headquarters within 24 hours after publication. Nearly one-third of the other district headquarters has to make do with several days old papers.

According to the Press Council of Nepal report, the spurt in the number of newspapers in the last 11 years or so has not been equally matched by quality. "Most of them have not been able to achieve quality. The condition of small newspapers is of greater concern.

II.2. Radio

While the government continues to monopolise the only radio service with nationwide network, the private sector has been allowed to run private FM stations, each with very limited reach. Prior to 1996, there were no private radio stations of any kind. So far, licences have been issued to operate 25 FM stations, out of which 16 are operating. The distribution of these stations leaves much to be desired. Half of them operate in Kathmandu Valley, and four in Pokhara (the headquarters of a western district) and the remaining three in three districts. Thus, hardly half a dozen districts in a country composed of 75 districts have FM stations. The basis of issuing licences is not clear and many conditions are placed on the existing private stations-conditions not applicable to the state-owned radio services, including FM radio. Radio Sagarmatha, run by a group of journalists devoted to environment, is the first FM station in the private sector in not only Nepal but in the whole of South Asia. It is five years old and runs quality programmes. A non-profit making service, it is in constant shortage of funds.

The private stations are not allowed to broadcast their own news bulletins. Instead, it is mandatory that they broadcast the state-run Radio Nepal's news bulletin at least once a day. Now, there are government plans to ensure that the private stations allocate 25 per cent of their total airtime to broadcast the state-owned Radio Nepal's programmes. There are many other applications from private parties seeking licences to operate FM stations. Decisions on these applications are delayed and no explanation is given as to the reason for delay. Allowing the private sector to operate nationwide radio service remains most unlikely in the foreseeable future.

II.3. Television

Several private sector agencies have applied for licences to operate their own television services. So far, the government's response has been lukewarm. Two private companies-Shangrila and Spacetime Television Network-have obtained licences as cable networks, with a lot of restrictions-restrictions not applicable to the state-run Nepal Television. Spacetime, wanting to spread its service nationwide, wanted an uplink facility in Nepal. It purchased the necessary equipment and, when it was about to go on air, the government rejected the application after months of indecision. The explanation from the government has not been convincing. Instead, Spacetime went satellite shortly before the state-owned Nepal Television did the same. But without uplink facilities, Spacetime's service has been severely restricted. It sends pre-recorded programmes on a Thai air service daily and telecasts the same from Bangkok. This has increased the costs and troubles of the network apart from restricting its ability to run timely news-oriented programmes. The government's policy seems to be to ensure its monopoly over television news.

However, cable networks offering various foreign channels are thriving-spread as they are in most urban parts. But they are prevented from extensive reach since less than 14 per cent of the population has access to electricity supply. Additionally, according to the highly underestimated official figure, more than 40 per cent of the population lives below poverty line. Television viewers in Nepal spend more time watching foreign channels than local channels simply because local channel basically means Nepal Television.

A number of private companies have applied for licences to launch television services. Decision remain pending, with uncertainty as to when it will finally be made.

III. Key Media Issues

III.1. Access to Information

The Constitution of Nepal is among the few-and the only one in the whole of South Asia-to guarantee right to information to its citizens. The constitutional provision guaranteeing access to information has drawn appreciation by many both within and outside Nepal. However, access to information for most Nepalese and most of the time is confined to mere promise and constitutional provision. Government agencies and public institutions plead that they do not which information "to give and which to withhold," in the absence of a Right to Information Act. Even twelve years after the promulgation of the Constitution, the much-awaited Information Act has not materialised, despite constant pressure from the media.

In deference to the prevailing situation and demands from different quarters, FES in the recent years supported seminars on the right to information. The resultant debate and discussion persuaded the government to announce that such a bill would be introduced in parliament. However, the bill could not be introduced since the last two sessions of parliament saw incessant interruption by the opposition and very little business could take place. There are hopes that a bill on right to information might be introduced in parliament sometime in the year 2002. But there is still a nagging question as to content of the bill in terms of its content guaranteeing extensive access to information of public interest. The press feels that adequate access to information would enable journalists to produce more informative stories.

III. 2. Code of Conduct

Implementation of a Code of Conduct formulated by the Press Council of Nepal some five years ago has found difficulty. There are frequent complaints from both the public and sections of the press that many journalists have not honoured the Code of Conduct in practice. The code was formulated in consultation with the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, the largest journalists' body in Nepal, with nearly 3,000 members from all over the kingdom. There are also suggestions that the code need a thorough review to give it a more comprehensive character.

III.3. Working Journalists' Grievances

Although a Working Journalists' Act was announced five years ago, it remains virtually unimplemented. The management at various media organisations have not shown any enthusiasm in following the obligations laid down in the Working Journalists' Act. The government, too, needs to take firm initiative in ensuring the Act's implementation.

III.4. Partisan Press

The news media are highly partisan. Most newspapers are close to one political party/faction or the other, seeing everything right with the patron and seeing everything wrong with the rest. Such politicisation has affected the credibility of the news media. People have to read several newspapers to get a relatively accurate assessment of an event or development.

III.5. Community Media

Media experts at various forums have been stressing on the need for developing community media, especially in the radio sector. They feel that community FM stations should be developed so that the local people are better informed about local events, developments and processes. The handful of community radio in operation currently are facing constant paucity of resources but the programmes they broadcast generally draw appreciation from the discerning section of society.

There is ample scope for district newspapers to give wider coverage to local events and personalities instead of aping their national counterparts published from Kathmandu, whose focus is heavily on politics.

III. 6. Media and the Socially Deprived/Oppressed

Various orgtanisations have stressed the need for the media to focus more on the socially deprived and oppressed sections. They recommend extensive coverage of the related issues. Gender issues and portrayal of women in the media are among the other issues in this category.

IV.1. FES-supported Media Activities/Programmes

Various media-related activities/programmes were undertaken with FES support in Nepal in 2001. A few of the originally planned programmes had to be dropped when the partners concerned expressed difficulties in undertaking the same. But they informed FES on time about their inability and, as a result, FES offered support to other partners, which had been seeking such support. The media activities/programmes included seminars; workshops; conferences; material help; participatory programmes of Nepalese journalists/IT expert at international conferences in New Delhi, Hong Kong, Stockholm, Geneva, Qatar and Calcutta; and study and publication.

The main focus of FES support for media-related programmes was to ensure that media inform the society accurately and responsibly, thus contributing to the democratisation process of the country.

IV.2. Media Activities/Programmes in Brief

A brief summary of the various media activities/programmes that took place with FES support is as follows:

1. Partial financial support was extended to 12 publishers/managers and editors of Nepalese media who attended the International Press Institute's World Congress from January 29 to 29 in the Indian capital of New Delhi. The support was more or less equivalent to an airfare to and from New Delhi. It was an extremely rare opportunity for the Nepalese media-related people to take part in the IPI meet which attracted media managers, publishers and editors from all over the world. The cost-sharing experiment was highly successful since there were quite a few others who wanted to attend the New Delhi conference with partial support from FES but FES decided to limit the number to 12. The goals and objectives of IPI impressed the Nepalese participants. In fact, the Nepalese members have submitted a formal request to IPI headquarters to accord recognition to the Nepal Chapter of IPI, which was formed by the participants of the New Delhi IPI conference.

The Nepal Chapter of IPI also organised a FES-supported seminar on "Media Freedom" (September 30). There were about 40 participants, including some senior journalists. Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba made an inaugural address to the gathering, which emphasised the need to exercise media freedom with a sense of social responsibility.

Support was also provided to an IT expert to attend INET 2001 Conference on IT in Hong Kong and Stockholm. The participant at the Stockholm subsequently proved resourcesful in coordinating the FES-organised ICT Conference in Kathmandu in November 2001.
FES also extended assistance to Nepalese IT expert and journalists to attend WTO conference (Qatar) in November and another conference on news reporting in times of crisis ( Zeneva) in December.

2. Press Chautari organised day-long interaction programmes on "Pre-requisites of an Informed Society" in Pokhara ( March 18) and Kathmandu (April 27). There were more than 45 participants in each programme. The conference in Kathmandu attracted participants from various districts. Discussions were held on various aspects of the overall Nepalese media, including the strengths and shortcomings of the media operating in Nepal.

Press Chautari also organised a day-long seminar on "Information Flow and Professionalism" in Kathmandu (December 28). About 40 participants attended the programme and discussed ways and means of promoting timely flow of information to the public in a professional manner so that media credibility could be high. Leader of the main Opposition party in parliament, Mr. Madhav Kumar Nepal made the inaugural address.

3. Federation of Nepalese Journalists, the largest and most influential media organisation in Nepal, organised four seminars of one day each on "Right to Information and Good Governance", one of them in Kathmandu (June 20) and the rest in other parts of the country-Ilam (March 20), Baglung (April 18) and Dang (May 8). There were 35-40 participants in the seminars, with the main focus on the significance of access to information for good governance. The resource persons and participants included not only journalists but also political scientists and political figures. They also strongly called for a Right to Information Act. The Minister of State for Information and Communication, Mr. Pushkar Nath Ojha, made the inaugural address in the Kathmandu seminar. The general consensus among the participants was that access to information was essential for good governance, and the media can serve as an important component in promoting good governance and making the government and public institutions in particular transparent and accountable to the public. FNJ's Dang district unit was associated with FES-supported half-day interaction programme (November) on "Channels of Communication", with the focus being on community communication.

4. Nepal Press Union organised a seminar on "Working Journalists' Act: A Review" in Biratnagar (May 24), the country's second largest industrial town. The Working Journalists' Act is about five years old and yet it has hardly been implemented properly in almost all media organisations. The review raised the issue in Biratnagar. The Nepal Press Union also organised a conference on the same topic in Kathmandu (November 12), during which the issue drew a lot of attention for various quarters. Both the activities drew about 40 participants each.

5. Nepal Association of Media Educators organised two workshops on "Depth and Interpretive Reporting" in Janakpur (February 9-10) and Chitwan (March 23-24). The proved very successful as they imparted skills on reporting beyond the general news reporting. It was the first time that such a topic was incorporated in a workshop and the demand for similar workshop has come from other parts of the country. About 35 journalists attended each workshop.

NAME also organised two conferences, one on "Public Service Functioning of Radio" in Pokhara (November 5) and the other on "TV and Its Impact on Nepali Society" in Kathmandu (August 10). Both the programmes attracted about 40 participants each. All the four FM radio stations in Pokahara were represented in the Pokhara seminar and the Kathmandu meeting also recorded not only representatives from Nepal Television and Spacetime Television Network but also from other sections of the media, including media academics. The thrust of the discussion was on "the public service role" of the broadcast media.

6. Nepal Institute of Mass Communication organised one-day workshop on "News Editing" in Pokhara ( April 24). Various aspects of editing, including use of words, word economy, headline writing, news selection, page design, were among the topics discussed and illustrated. About 30 senior journalists participated.

7. Editor's Guild of Nepal organised a day-long seminar on "Prospects and Problems of Weekly Papers" in Kathmandu (May 24). There are more than 100 weekly papers that come out regularly from various parts of the country. Weekly papers, more than any other category of news publication, played a very important role in championing the cause of multiparty democracy during the now-defunct partyless Panchayat days. The weeklies, however, face many constraints and hence the various issues discussed at the seminar, which attracted very senior journalists, mostly working in national weeklies.

8. Department of Journalism and Mass Communication (R.R. Campus, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu) was the beneficiary of FES material support in the form of books on journalism and mass communication. R.R. Campus is Nepal's only institute that offers Bachelor level course in journalism and mass communication.

DJMC was supported to write a book on professional journalism. The manuscript has been completed and submitted to FES. It also organised seminars of one day each in Kathmandu (August 15) and Dharan (December 28) on "Media Education". Till the year 2001, only one university campus offered a Bachelor's level course on journalism and mass communication. Although the academic course of journalism and mass communication at B.A. level was introduced in 1979, no campus offered any course at the Master's level on journalism and mass communication. In the course of the DJMC seminars, most speakers pressed for introducing M.A. level courses on journalism and mass communication but with adequate trained manpower, library and laboratory facilities. Leading media educators were among the 40 participants in the seminars and the suggestions from these programmes did have a bearing on the academics concerned in that three campuses in Kathmandu are introducing M.A. level courses on journalism and mass communication from the first quarter of 2002. While two of these campuses are in the private sector, one is a public campus-Ratna Rajya Laxmi Campus--affiliated to the kingdom's premier university, Tribhuvan University.

9. Women and Development Communication Centre organised two workshops of one day each on "Community Radio: Opportunities and Challenges" in Kathmandu (December 19) and Hetauda (July 5). About 40 participants took part in both the workshops, underlining the need for utilising all available opportunities for promoting community radio in a country like Nepal where literacy is low and radio constitutes the most effective form of mass communication. Training for radio people is essential, they said, adding that the government should offer incentives to community radio in terms of reduced annual fee and permission to broadcast news bulletins as well. The workshop in Kathmandu drew representatives from all the eight FM stations in Kathmandu Valley in addition to Radio Nepal.

10. Sancharika Samuha Nepal organised a conference on "Role of Media in Empowerment of Women" in Chitwan ( July 24). More than 35 participants took part in the programme, which noted that the media focus on the need for promoting empowerment of women had increased in the recent years but they need to make greater efforts to highlight relevant issues pertaining to women's empowerment.

11. People's Campus, which offers journalism course at the Certificate (10+2 level), received material help by way of books on journalism and mass communication. The various titles of books have considerably improved the library stock of books on journalism and mass communication. The campus has been conducting journalism course since 15 years.

12. Media Point received FES material help in the form of an overhead projector. The organisation, a training institute offering basic journalism course, whose products work in various media houses, is known to be utilising the overhead projector in its training classes. It trains 25-30 persons during its ten-month course.

13. National Union of Journalists was extended a modest support to meet the expenses of its resource persons only for a seminar organised on "Media in Times of Crisis" in Kathmandu (December 10). Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and four other senior leaders of four major political parties were among those who addressed the opening session of the programme.

14. The Telegraph Weekly organised a half-day seminar on "Role of Media in Enhancing Good Governance" in Kathmandu (December 20). About 50 participants, including some senior journalists and academics, took part in the programme, which was described as timely and relevant at a time when the cross-section of the Nepalese society has been pressing for good governance.

15. Press Council Nepal organised a half-day seminar on "Challenges of Professionalism in Present Context" in Kathmandu (December 27), with special focus on media functioning during the existing state of emergency in Nepal whereby the media have been issued certain directives by the government to ensure that they did not carry news or comments that "boosted" the morale of the Maoist rebels and "lowered" the morale of the army which has been deployed to quell the rebels.

16. The National Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ) organised a day-long seminar on "Documentary and Development Film Making in Nepal" (November22). Leading film makers were among the participants who emphasised the need for more quality films and screening outlets in order to demonstrate that development films can serve as effective catalyst for change in society.

17. FES published a book containing various papers submitted by experts from different parts of the world in connection with the ICT conference that FES organised in Kathmandu (November 29-30, 2001.


Note: FES has also been associated with other media-related activities such as counselling and providing media-related publications

 
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