BY P. KHAREL
At a time when the KP Oli-led government keeps making new promises to the people by the day, one would make a plea that it also exposed the dubious among us journalists, who pocket money or undue influence on the sly.
After King Birendra lifted the ban on political parties and restored multiprty system in 1990, Interim Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai directed Information Department’s Acting Director General Shailendra Raj Sharma to draw up the list of all journalists who received government funds.
Sharma, whose residence was in the neighbourhood of where Bhattarai lived at Kupandole in Lalitupur, compiled the names of the beneficiaries who received money from the government during the 29 years of partyless Panchayat. When Sharma submitted the list to the premier who was keen to make the names public and expose the “anti-democratic elements that served the Panchayat dicatatorship for 30 years”.
SHARMA’S LIST: As the interim premier perused the list, he made a long face, at once surprised and shocked by the parade of the figures the journalists represented in the list. Sharma might have taken special pleasure over the matter in that Nepali Congress and the Left Front treated as rightists anyone who were not their party members or did not have anyone powerful in their organisations to vet an individual as “basically reformed-minded”. Sharma was keen to prove that though he had served Panchayat ministers and prime ministers, he was only doing his job while nursing democratic aspirations.
Bhattarai, in the course of reading the names in the list was overheard expressing his utter shock to Sharma several times. The two words he blurted out again and again were: “He too?… He too?” Bhattarai then folded the paper and told the director general: “Let this be a closed chapter. We’ll forget it!” He apparently wished to protect those who were considered to be close to the coaltiion partners in the government (Nepali Congress and Left Front).
Pradeep Nepal, as Information and Communications Minister in South Asia’s first democratically elected communist cabinet led by Manmohan Adhikary, announced in early 1995 that he would make public the list of journalists who had been given money by the Panchayat government. The pledge was never met. Grapevine had it that the reason for not pursing the probe was attributed to strong pleas by some of the “big shots” among journalists not to disclose their names, fuelling fears that they might have to commit self-immolation!
This scribe is in the know of several journalists who secured phone lines which subsequently were given to individuals willing to pay Rs. 25,000 or even more in the post-1990 years when the monthly salary of a special class officer in the government was less than 6,000. The ministers sanctioning such orders made a “sacrifice” considering that they would themslves have made an extra pile of money instead of misuing their office for others.
In the past decade, half a dozen media groups are alleged to have imported communications-related equipment running into million of unpaid taxes thanks to “unorganised” trade, i.e., smuggling. The malpractice affected frequency transimission business. This is only a tip for those who dare to venture into launching investigative journalism.
In April, (CPN) UML held a meeting of its party’s publicity department. On the dais and audience seats were quite a few mainstream journalists of the print, broadcast and online variety, plus NGO activists, even as the Chief Election Commissioner was exhorting the NGOs not to engage in activity that would influence the electoral process politically.
Many a journalist in government media and those in the private media can be seen openly boasting of party membership. Press Council Nepal keeps silent and pretends not seeing anything whereas it cried desperately and secured election monitoring well-paying work from Election Commission.
PERVASIVE POLITICS: Media politics is bad enough; but were it to blend in dirty tricks, the entire society would risk being victimised. In countries that do not call their Constitutions “the best” in the world, pervasive partisan press does not exist. In Nepal, sections of the press are overlooked but subsidised by the state at every corner.
Dozens of journalists made a beeline at the residences of political leaders for party tickets in connection with last year’s local, provincial and general elections. Quite a few of them were office bearers of district units of Federaion of Nepalese Journalists. A few were obliged. Next time competition among journalists is expected to be anarchic.
Bent on being well-informed means better-equipped to take appropriate decisions. News media could help, that is, if they function independently and impartially. Some try shielding themselves for professional deficiency by chanting “mission journalism”; others invoke the “right” to free expression.
Ward chiefs in various districts have been hiring media advisors who concurrently brandish press ID cards. This has been the case also during the long years when there were no elected representatives in the loal bodies. Political pressure from “above” apparently did the trick.
Wish a government talking big on reforms would not hesitate to make public the names of those who receive special favours from the government but want it kept undosclosed.