Crippled by self censorship

The incidents of organized crime, political corruption, criminal acts, black marketeering, and smuggling are the issues Nepali journalists consider taboo issues to be covered. Extracts from ‘Self-censorship and Nepali media’, a study report by the South Asia Media Commission-Nepal Chapter April 2010.
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From the Executive Summary

After the successful people's movement of 2006, the situation was expected to improve, like post-democratic environment in 1990. But, unfortunately, the media manipulators had already learned the tricks to misuse and abuse media. The Madhesi movement of 2008 in tarai (plain) region and Maoist highhandedness in hilly region continued to terrorize journalists in the districts outside the capital. Furthermore, the journalists were also terrorized by various criminal groups as they had developed nexus with the political parties. The journalists were so terrorized by all these three forces that they opted to report only the events, and many chose to be a part of the forces by themselves for their protection and extra earnings.

The study report conducted by South Asia Media Commission-Nepal Chapter found out that the credibility of journalists and journalism has deteriorated alarmingly all over Nepal. The situation outside the valley was even worse. People have stopped believing in journalism, and they do not think that journalists are doing good for the country. Many respondants claim that the journalists are just saving their jobs, like any other professional would do, comprising with all the odds of the society. None believed that Nepali journalists were really working for the development of the society. Even more people consider journalists as member of political parties. They claim that all the journalists are only championing the cause of the party they are affiliated with.

The journalists interviewed for this report accepted that they were practicing self-censorship for their safety, and due to political affiliation. Very few accepted that they were doing so for economic benefit. But majority of the general public, bureaucrats and academia believe that journalists are not reporting the truth for their economic interests.

This report has found out that journalists in Nepal are practicing self-censorship mainly due to security threat. The journalists are not in a position to take stand against any armed groups or criminals because the state is weak and is not in any position to provide security to journalists. Moreover, journalists are also not trained about how to deal with such difficult situation. They also don't know which news items really trigger security issue and which news items can be safely presented.

The affiliation of journalists to different political parties is also a major hurdle to end self-censorship from Nepali media. Unless political parties take conscious decision to free journalists from their parties' grip, the political news sanctioning is not going to end. However, there is one sliver linning in this issue. As journalists are divided into various political groups, a journalist related to one party do not bother to expose the wrongdoings of the other parties. Hence, it is somewhat balance except for the cases where journalists are threatened.

The material greed among the journalists is also a major reason for self-censorship. The criminal groups or business cartels provide certain monetary incentive to all the journalists for concealing their wrong doings. Many journalists are allured by such a phenomenon as most of the journalists are not paid enough by their organizations to lead a decent life.

The character and extent of self-censorship
The incidents of organized crime, political corruption, criminal acts, black marketeering, smuggling are the issues the journalists consider taboo issues to be covered. Most of the journalists are aware of such issues, but they do not so any enthusiasm and courage to expose such incidents. They have seen gangs supported by various political parties snatching tenders in the districts, they know who is in smuggling of prohibited Rakta Chandan (red sandalwood), donations or extortions by criminal groups, terrorizing the locals, kidnappings and killings etc., but they do not take risk to write about it. The journalists openly concede that they are practicing self-censorship. We think three times about our own interest or security before covering such risky issues.

The journalists ignoring or softening the news items are linked to the lack of professional and physical security, weak economic status of the media houses, ever-rising violence in the society, criminal culture, criminalization of politics and impunity.

Self-censorship for self security: There is no easy answer to the journalists to why they write news. Their self security and their media houses' security are their major concerns. The journalists rethink twice about their own security before writing anything. They are under the shadow of serious terror. In three years since the beginning of the peace process in the country in 2006, four journalists and media owners have lost their lives. The journalists have been receiving death threats almost everyday, some journalists have been displaced from their jobs and locality. The journalists have been facing kidnapping and serious attacks.

Local journalists admit that they have been scared and terrified even by the political party that has been running the government and their activities (at the time the Maoists were in the government). They allege the Maoists authoritarian psychology and terrorizing tactics for the self-censorship practised by the media. Apart from the Maoists, the UML that has semi-military youth force and Nepali Congress that has youth groups, are also playing their roles in terrorizing the journalists, whenever any news story about their accesses comes in the paper. As such, the journalists concede that they try to avoid any such news which would implicate any particular political party in any issue. The status and moral of women journalists is even lower than that of the male journalists.

The local newspapers avoid news about gangsters, political corruption, rights issues, black marketeering and smuggling. The journalists are covering only the safe issues like party's press releases, government's releases, speech of the political leaders, sports, economic activities, fashion, and human interest stories. Even if they happen to choose some difficult issues, they soften the allegations, avoid to mention the culprit and present the story without giving much impetus. They try not to provide any follow-ups. Even the opinion writers have restrained themselves from criticing on local politicl issues. They have also started writing articles on more general and less risky issues.

Journalists from western district Kanchanpur concede that over 900 hectare of community forest land has been occupied by some people in the name of squatters. Neither the government can remove them from that occupation nor the journalists can write the issue. Journalists from eastern district Jhapa admit that they have no guts to write any news pertaining to the army and the courts. Similarly Bhairahawa's journalists concede that they cannot write anything about the smuggling going on in the border. Journalists from Janakpur said that there was a project worth 150 million rupees to black-top the city roads. The black-topping never took place neither can they write about it. Journalists from Rupandehi admit that they concealed about 80 percent of the news of communal violence in Kapilvastu in 2007.

The attacks on media vehicles have also increased many folds in recent days. In one and half years following the election to the Constituent Assembly the political parties have attacked and vandalized four local radio stations. The incidents of threats, misbehavior and arsonning of published materials have happened numerous times.

Weak economic condition: The poor economic conditions of the journalists is one of the reasons of self-censorship. In the lack of resources, the journalists cannot collect, investigate and disseminate news properly. A journalist from Sindhupalchowk (a mountain district bordering China) said that he would need over a thousand rupees to travel from the district headquarters to Chinese border to collect a new, whereas that news would hardly bring 500 rupees, provided that the editors in the center consider the news worth publishing or broadcasting. If those journalists get full-time job from their organizations, they will not receive more than four thousand rupees a month. Due to such poor economic conditions, the journalists are more inclined to the news that promote people, who would provide something to the journalists in return.

Sacrificing freedom for business interest: Many district representatives of the major media houses in the capital are not only journalists. They also need to collect advertisement and recover their salaries from that money. As they are forced to please the advertizers, they cannot write anything against the potential advertisers. Many journalists working in the local level avoid issues of business parties on their own discretion, thinking that his or her act would benefit their organization. In some cases the senior editor or publisher themselves signal them to avoid reporting certain issues.

One editor said that he avoids news for the sake of advertisement. According to him, one school was his advertiser for sometime. Once a bad news about the school got published in his newspaper, since when there has been no business from that school. "Then I realize that I'm not completely free to write the news," he said.

Butwal's journalists are also suffering from the similar problem. As per them, there are seven dailies from Butwal, and all dailies have about 20 investors in average. As such there are like 140 promoters of those seven newspapers. All the promoters are the businessmen. Hence, all these dailies are unable to to write anything about their wrongdoings.

Social and personal relationships: In southern plane of Nepal many armed political and criminal groups have come up. Many journalists know people behind such groups. Due to personal and social relationships the journalists cannot expose such people. Even if there is no family relations, the journalists avoid exposing such people due to the threat of violence.

Lack of professionalism: At the time of conflict, the journalists are supposed to handle the situation with utmost care for social harmony as well as their own security. How to deal with agitated mobs, how to cover them, what are the security tips etc. should be known. But Nepali journalists lack such skills. Nepali journalists do not even carry simple medicines like paracetamol and bandages while going for the trips that require hours of trekking. As they lack the skill to report conflict, there are many incidents of journalists being vicitims.

Political affiliation: Almost all journalists are affiliated with one or the other political party. The journalists are mainly divided into three groups of associations like democrats are into Press Union, leftist are into Press Chautari and ultra leftists into Revolutionary Press Association. Some journalists are also assuming the positions in the publicity department of their respective parties. This fact was accepted by the journalists in Jhapa. The situation holds true for all the districts or for the whole of country.

Rescrictions in movement: During the strikes and blockage, even the major political parties restrict the movement of journalists. They vandalize the vehicles carrying journalists, threaten journalists and sometimes attack physically. But the political parties are not taken action for those acts. So, journalists face restrictions to reach to the source of the news. Some armed and underground groups do not only restrict journalists to reach to them, they have even kidnapped and killed some journalists. As such the journalists have to rely basically on the secondary reports provided to them by human rights activists groups, political parties and the government agencies.

Impunity: The environment of impunity is the major reason for self-censorship among the journalists. There has been no action taken against the people who are involved in excesses against the journalist. Immediately after the successful people's movement in 2006, a journalist Prakash Thakuri was kidnapped from far western district, and was killed subsequently. The government did not take action against the people involved in his murder. Rather, the government scrapped the cases against the people arrested in his murder. Only one person involved in the murder of journalist JP Joshi is in the prison, rest are still scotfree. The government is not prepared to take action against the murderer of journalists Virendra Shah and Uma Singh. Due to these backdrops, the journalists do not take risk to take up serious issues.

The journalists of far western region say that there were attacks on Ramaroshan FM, Janakranti daily, Abhiyan daily, but no action was taken against anyone. Due to such apathetic behavior of the government, the criminals' confidence has boosted. They do not bother taking action against the journalists. The journalists have seen the apathetic conditions of the families of Prakash Thakuri, JP Joshi and others. So, they are not encouraged to risk their life.

Journalists from Rupandehi district claim that they have registered about half a dozen complaints in the police station, but none has been followed through.

Discouraged investigative journalism: The investigative journalism looks into the depth of the matter. It is about investigation, research and through study of the issue before publicizing. But our political and social environment is not friendly to any kind of creative criticism. They are always attempting to conceal their weaknesses. Due to such attitudes of the so called elites and powerful in the society, journalists are discouraged to do any story that would implicate rich and famous in the society. The journalists seem to have lost lust for investigative journalism.

Self-censorship has become a part of Nepali society. Due to various pressure and confusion, the journalists are not in a position to take risk. They are not covering anything that would expose the criminals, politicians, armed groups and elites of the society. They have accepted self-censorship as a culture and part of their profession, which is unfortunate for Nepali journalism and healthy development of the society.

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