Kishore Nepal: On Journalism Career and Media Standards
Kishore Nepal discusses his journalism career, media ethics, monopoly, professional education, and standards in 21st century Nepali media.
Kishore Nepal, 59, is one of Nepal’s most renowned journalists and also active as an editor, columnist and novelist. In an interview with Gerhard Schoenhofer, a student of anthropology from Germany now working with the Media Foundation, Kishore talks critically about his view on recent developments in the Nepali media landscape, the corrupt education system and the need for reflection on these developments by academic disciplines. He also recalls the incidents around the royal family in 2001 and mentions some of his ongoing media related projects.
You graduated in 1976 from the Tribhuvan University on Nepali Culture, History and Anthropology. How could you connect your knowledge that you gained in these subjects with your work today as a journalist and editor? How did it prepare you for the tasks you’re busy with today?
Indeed, I graduated in 1976 and I think it was my primary education. Before that I was already in journalism, editing and publishing a monthly political journal Bichar and literary magazine Swatantrata. I had already decided to join journalism, so I was already in that field. When I formally joined university classes, I was already involved with the Gorkhapatara Corporation. My engagement with them was as a rural development reporter. It was all about visiting remote villages and writing pieces on people and running a column. So I think this knowledge helped me to apprehend wider and more expanded opportunities. In a way, it pushed my career. But studying history, culture and anthropology also helped me to understand the Nepali society. Observe intensely.
Particularly the study of anthropology was very fruitful to enhance my carrier as a journalist. I learned how to read the people; they cannot hide their real opinions like politicians, business people or even journalists. The masses were the silent! You have to understand their feelings, their emotions, just while reading their faces. That was exactly the situation in Nepal at that time, and more or less that has not been changed till today. Certainly, education and qualification is required to be a journalist, and to be an editor, because both are very responsible positions. People care less for educational standard or standard education! They just go through the courses and try learning some tricks to pass the exam.
Do you think that’s particularly the case in Nepal or do you think this particular low standard of education happens to be a general phenomena in the realm of journalism and media studies?
It’s a South Asian phenomenon. India as well as Bangladesh are better though, but Pakistan and Nepal, also parts of Northern India … shall I use the term corrupt? Yes, these areas suffer from a corrupt education system!
So you can buy your degree, more or less?
[Laughing] It should be hard-earned. Like you are doing for it!
Do you think it is important that scientists from different fields involve in the study of media and society?
Yes. Especially today media is intervening in the people’s daily life. You cannot live without media! If you are alone at home you’re using Twitter and Facebook to relate to people.
Exactly, it has transformed human relationships!
… And the political ones, as well. All the recent events (e.g. the Occupy movement) were mostly inspired and prompted by or through Facebook. So, new media is a very powerful tool. When I started journalism, it was a limited circulation media, only newspapers, an extremely limited and heavily censored broadcasting system.
There was no Nepali TV broadcaster at that time?
Only in 1985 Nepal got television.
So basically journalism or media was only the written word at that time?
It was written and ‘major’ media were all government media.
So it was certainly regulated in a way?
Heavily regulated and heavily censored. But after 1990 the situation changed rapidly and the people became aware. By the end of 20th century transformation was still going on. Now is the time to standardize journalism. To establish media particularly as a scientific discipline is very necessary now.
I was thinking, for example, of these incidents in 2001 when the whole royal family was murdered.
Yes, they all were killed.
Do you think it is important that social scientists like anthropologists or sociologists reflect on these processes? The way media does not cover these incidents made me particularly curious because many people nowadays still don’t know what really happened that day.
Yes, that is a very crucial question. First of all, you have to understand the legacy of this royal family. There are links with history, the construction of the family, cultural links with concepts such as the patronizing Hindu religion. If you want to relate to these things in the course of your research, you have to study the whole royal family as a clan. It’s a very new thing for a royal family, and the incident was very extreme. Something like that is very rarely happening.
A lot of myths were created around it. Maybe even because there was no real media coverage, as I read in one article about this phenomenon the term self-censorship was partly used by theorists.
No, I would not call it self-censorship or something like that. I reported on the royal family just before the incident. I had written a slightly prophetic cover story in a daily newspaper that very soon something would happen in the royal family. The report was published on Sunday and the incident took place on Friday or Thursday. The gap was only a couple of days. It was in Naya Sadak Daily, the first mass circulating tabloid I was editing back then. Nepali Times reproduced it later, if you google it, you will definitely find that link. Or you can contact me and I’ll send you the copy, perhaps.
Did you face any insulting comments on that? For example, “‘Mr. Nepal, how could you know? Are you involved in this?”
No. Later, many people realized that it was supposed to happen. I sensed something beforehand. The crown prince, Dipendra, was accused. The Royal Family was very closed and secretive. The state protected their secrecy. Only ‘good news’ was published about them. And people were scared to talk about them. Even the gossiping was secretive. But, in public, Dipendra was a very joyful and hearty person. People talk about his drinking habit. He used to drink a little heavy. But he was a very calm and quiet man in public. I met him in a small restaurant in a hotel. It was a quiet place. He was there for coffee. And he called me: “Kaha? Where are you going? Come, have coffee with me!” We talked for about 10 to 15 minutes. He was very friendly. It was only my second encounter with him. I asked him: ‘Why aren’t you married? It’s time now to get married and to keep the legacy going on”. He was just laughing. Then he stopped the conversation and I left.
But you know, something haunted me. While I was talking to him and I picked up the issue of getting married, he suddenly became very sad and pathetic. So I investigated and started to collect information. But how should I write about this? It was very difficult. You could not say that particularly this would happen. I was sensing something may happen. This man could delink himself from the royal family. The tragic incident of that scale was not in my mind. I came up with an imaginary plot: The people are worried that their crown prince is still not married, what will happen to this country … things like that… It was a different experience of writing you know [laughs]. It was very different from regular journalism but still it was powerful. Then in the last paragraph I lined out, that the lord Pashupatinath bless our royal family and protect them. Anything could happen if the crown prince remains unwed…when the news came out, the people were just scared. ‘What is he writing?’ [giggles]. They could not support or denounce me. It was a very tricky situation; the government was also under pressure. So they simply tried to ignore it. But then the incident happened. On the next Friday, the shooting took place in the palace. That’s why I was using the word prophetic.
What are you busy with at the moment? What kind of projects are you currently involved in?
I am editing a tabloid, Shukrabar, that’s Friday. Nepal Republic Media launched it just ten month before. Although we’re running it just 10 months now, it is already a grandly successful project! We have successfully established the brand. I am also launching for the company a monthly magazine as well as writing a column on Sunday, in Nagarik. I’m also occasionally doing television works such as producing television programs in the villages. Though, those programs are not regularly happening anymore. Television is very expensive! But in case money and resources are available I am available for that [laughing].
… the next question relates to your TV-production MAT-ABHIMAAT. You were focusing, in this one on grassroots journalism…
I was always interested in this rural scenario; since the last 30 years I am working on villages, the rural population. It gives me strength and freshness. All my contemporary journalists are either retired, or they joined the teaching profession. I’m still actively writing! I am making the people my prime motto, my prime target. So I’m writing about them. I would like to tell you a bit about the background of that time when I started MAT-ABHIMAAT. The political conflict had just started intensely in the mid-western and far-western region of Nepal. At that time, Rajendra Dahal was the editor of Himal Khabarpatrika. I asked him to commission me on the reporting of the conflict. He was happy about it and he gave me some money so I went to Dailekh. One day, I saw a small kid, about 12- or 13-year old there, standing in front of a police office with a person who must have be 45- to 50-years old. The kid was a little Maoist and he was punishing the much older man physically for drinking while shouting out: “This is an alcohol-free zone. You should not drink here! Either you pay 500 Rupees as fine or you have to accept this punishment.”
I suddenly realized that there was no law. After returning back home, still this scene in my mind, I thought: “a journalist should dare to go in those places to collect people’s voice, their feelings, their emotions and their legacy.” I approached Nepal Television, but they were not autonomous enough to provide me airtime for this kind of program. As a consequence, I approached the Prime Minister. We sat for about 15 to 20 minutes and he immediately ordered his communication minister to open the door for my television program and me. It happened due to my reputation and credibility. The PM could not simply ignore my proposal.
And, a matter of good networking strategy; is that so?
I always had a good following. In my 40 years of journalism career I helped to produce maybe 250 to 300 journalists. So all these people came to my MAT-ABHIMAT network and they helped me. But it was a very difficult time. No journalist was writing anything on violence at that time, although people were suffering from it. So I decided to compensate this; it went smoothly for a few weeks, but then I was facing very hard time as I had to face confrontation with Maoists and the government Army. I reported some of the incidents but largely ignored others, as it was in my opinion, a professional hazard that should be coped with by a journalist.
So you had a lot of difficulties with that kind of journalism?
Yes, I visited 75 districts and at that time 180 villages. That makes more than 250 TV-shows. And that program somehow started to play a role in the peace process.
It was an essential tool for building up the peace process?
It was the pressure from the people. [The parties in conflict] were nothing more but savages between two armies, the king’s army and the Maoist army. MAT-ABHIMAT was able to put a lot of pressure. All these personalities and political actors realized that this conflict was really happening. Such processes of making things visible can help to create an environment of peace. After the 100th episode, I wrote a book called “Under the shadow of Violence”, it was a critical survey of that time and reflected the national mood.
After the new revolution, or people’s movement, whatever you like to call it, I continued the program for one more year and for another year in a post-conflict format. But I was getting tired, because I was continuously working in the villages for four years. So now I do occasional episodes.
So it was mainly a matter of making people’s voices visible, of people who lived in the remote villages?
My sole aim was to establish the rural agenda in the center. The ruling class always looks at the periphery as their private property or fiefdom. That program was transforming peoples’ thinking. Now their voices can be heard.
Do you think it makes sense to combine this grassroots media work with some kind of study up approach?
That is the argument. You have to. There is no other way. Because the elite, the ruling class always tries to dismantle things. They obviously want to grab power just in order to rule, not for establishing welfare. So, to change this mentality, there should be a common and powerful type of union. That only could be demonstrated through television broadcasting. That’s how the agenda could be established.
That’s an interesting transition to my next question: What kind of role should media play in the Nepali society? What you just said sounds in a way a bit like journalism could play the role of lobbyism in order to connect certain groups of the population here in Nepal.
It’s not just certain groups. You have to include the people as a whole. It has nothing to do with political, social or ethnic groups. I’m against that. Only the people, the nation, should have priority. Now the elite or the government are prioritized. They perceive themselves as ruling center or something like that. So, that is the issue, the attitude of the ruling class should be changed. For me, that means restructuring the state as well as resetting the mind.
So that’s the mission of journalism nowadays in Nepal?
Journalism has become more and more business and money-oriented. There is no more any position for the editor. There are now people as the editorial managers who are very closely related to the company management. The managers have replaced the editors. It’s not very effective. I’m very much sad to say that the media is not playing their role. They are either leaflets of political parties, or they are just serving the people the leftovers of politicians. I’m not happy with this. All are divided, between parties, between ethnic groups, between different interests. So it’s very disgusting…
That’s a strong word.
It’s a strong word! I want to use this word and I’m using this with you and with other people as well. It’s a real disgusting scenario in the market of media. We lost the agenda. What are we doing? We don’t know. The media scenario in Nepal is very miserable, it’s a very sad fact. Nowadays, there are two things that inspire the media: One is donors’ money, all donors are putting money in the media and in return, they are putting pressures to impose their own agenda, their own vision. This is very incorrect, unjust and uncultured. And on the other side there are political parties, who want to infiltrate media with their money and power. Media is trapped in between these ruling manipulators. That’s the problem. Everybody has an interest. There is too much personal interest involved. Nobody is working for Nepal’s development. It’s their agenda, their interests they are working for. First, you have to realize that every nation shares the national interest first. We have that understanding that these people are just helping us out to push our nation. But that’s not what is going to happen. What is happening in Afghanistan? You see … [laughs]
You mentioned that when you started journalism it was mainly the printed word and not so much about television. Do you think that the growth of television channels has changed the moral and ethical standard of journalism and media coverage in Nepal?
Television hasn’t been able to expand. It’s an effect on the mass level, because the program is telecast by the Nepal Television. If the big business houses stop advertising, all the television companies will collapse. That’s the thing. Not even Kantipur TV will survive. They are all depending on business house! One example: Our media plays ads of these 2-minute noodles, 1-minute noodles. These are called junk foods. According to WHO Standard, they are not healthy for children. The government policy does not support junk food. But even the governmental media is still heavily depending on these 1-minute noodles! If these junk food manufacturers stop advertising, the television stations will go bankrupt. As there is no capital investment, there is no hard money to run the system.
So, in your opinion, a system of guidance is required?
Not to control the thoughts but to just give them a quality blending. Media should be responsible to society. Especially, on the larger issues of social interests, media shall not be fence sitter. Nothing else. It shall be voluntary. Self-imposing. No regulation. I am the last person to regulate freedom.
During my research I also found out that you have also been engaged in political counseling in a certain way. Is that correct?
Not exactly. I am an independent journalist. Just a journalist! I served as a press advisor to the Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Battarai. Actually, Battarai was my mentor since my early days. The principals of democratic socialism always connected us. Up to 1990, one could still feel the charms of the politics of idealism; it was not commercialized like today. I was in journalism, successfully doing my job and not promoting my personal political opinion in the news and columns. I worked for Reuters, an international news agency. I worked for several other media companies in India and Europe. As a citizen, I do have a political idealism. I support democratic socialism, I am against communism, extremism, I am against violence … all these things. And this is not the case only today, but I have been like that since the last 45 years!
But how would you define the relations between journalism and politics?
Well, it depends on how you handle the professional role. How do you keep your independence? How credible you are? If a prime minister or a political person trusts you in personal level, it is a plus point. Walter Lippmann, the great US journalist, was the friend of US Presidents. You can cite several examples. If I have access to important political personalities, what is wrong with that? I can serve people with first-hand information. I am not depending on second-hand information. Do open journalism! Very open journalism!
But it’s difficult! The line is a very thin one, isn’t it?
You have to take care of that. You should be fearless. I can write, I think, for example what this and that person in the government does is very wrong for the society. But when somebody is doing his party works, why should I cite him? Each and every political party is corrupt. That has become universal in the politics of Nepal [giggles]. So, criticizing these parties is a senseless thing for me. If you keep that belief in good intentions, then you are easy with everybody. I was once very critical about one of our politicians, but I am still maintaining my personal relation with him.
If you compare Nepali media with Indian media or Pakistani media, what makes it distinct from the other countries’ media cultures?
Throughout my career, I had the chance to study comparatively all the media cultures. The format of content is the same, everywhere. There is no standard, like Nepali media is less standard than others, or The New York Times is of high standard, it’s not like that [giggles]. It’s the society, the standard of society that counts much. This is the media behavior! Their behavior is irreversible! It’s across the globe! You cannot particularize or classify it. That is a very underdeveloped mentality, in my opinion.
Media follows the same rules in every country?
It is not the rules; it’s the working standard of a journalist. I have not set any rule but still I have a huge following! You, for example are doing this research now about South Asian mediascapes, particularly the use and access of media amongst the civil society in Nepal, but next year I am sure several students will follow you and your ideas.
Well, the people read me because of my credibility. They say that my political commentaries are in-depth and independent. People love me, because I report about the rural scenario in Nepal. I don’t limit myself on this valley, Kathmandu city or the political and economical elite. I go to the masses and I have direct connections with thousands of people. They know me by my first name! Sometimes they just put the red powder on my head, performing a Tika ceremony and giving me blessings [giggles]. I am satisfied with that!
It would be interesting to know about what makes the media situation, the mediascape in Nepal so special in comparison to other South Asian countries?
Nepali Media is trying to commercialize itself. They want to form a big corporation like The New York Times or Times of India. But they don’t have the necessary financial and intellectual input. They are treating the nation like a neighborhood and they want to control the editorial section, just in order to make money and to satisfy them. The young journalists who are aspiring for a career and want to earn some money are just compelled to work for them. It’s a compulsion. You are out from the school, with a degree, and you should have a work. Otherwise, how will you marry, how will you satisfy your girlfriend? That is your worry also [laughs]. So there should be an investment-friendly situation. We have only two well-organized media houses, Kantipur and Nagarik.
Pretty murky situation then so to say?
Nagarik is coming up, but it is suffering, not because of the lack of investment, but because of the editorial guidelines. That’s what I see. And Kantipur is suffering from that monopolistic syndrome, its monopolistic attitudes. After the restoration of democracy in 1990, Kantipur came up in a big a way and it broke the monopoly of Gorkhapatra, the government publication and became number 1. Now, Kantipur wants to establish its own monopoly. Monopoly is the number one enemy of democracy.
So, in a way, they aim to dominate Nepali mediascape?
This is present, real and true position.
How would you define professionalism in the realm of journalism, especially in the context of Nepal?
I’m a professional! You look at me, the whole behavior, my family, my values, my budgets…
Ok! That’s a pretty clear answer, yeah?
Because I’m the longest serving journalist! I’ve been working for the last 43 years, so the people in the journalism area, in the area of communication and information, love me as an icon, an icon of Nepali journalism, so I’m the definition! [laughs]
How much do you access or use new media such as Twitter or Facebook or LinkedIn?
I’m into both, Twitter and LinkedIn, but I’m not updating them very regularly. I like Twitter very much but even then I am not able to express myself with continuity. Sometimes I do it regularly for a week or 10 days, especially when I’m out of Kathmandu. And I am also on Facebook but I don’t like the attitude of Nepali Facebook users. They just access it for ventilating their egos and catering their personal news! What they eat or wear, you know … things like that! It is not very interesting for others! So, I am not regularly using Facebook, I stopped using it.
Yeah, Facebook is pretty much designed to show off you identity, who you want to be. etc.
But that kind of media is really helpful to promote my book. Really helpful!
Yes, those are all possibilities you might not have had when you started writing. And now with these new social media, new doors are opening up, right?
I don’t think that one should keep aloof from media like Facebook, Twitter but then one has to write also. Nowadays, everybody opens first Facebook account when he switches on his computer.
You know what our company did? No Facebook!
Oh yes? It is banned?
No, it’s not banned. After 5 or 6 pm, they would let the employees access it. Or after 11 pm in the night after the main working hours. I can access Facebook, but there is the block! You have to work! [laughs]
So your use of social media depends on how much time you have, you can not do it constantly every day?
Yes, actually I’m very active, even now. I have several obligations; I have to write a column every week and I have to look after the content of my tabloid. I have to discuss several issues with my managing director. I do have much interest in the television show. So there are family obligations as well. But I always have to write, I can not sit idle without writing! Just today, I woke up at 4:30 in the morning and after my cup of coffee, I started writing, till 9 or 9:30. At that time, my mobile device, my telephone, everything is switched off. Those 4 hours are my hours!
So you’re most actively writing in the early morning hours?
Yes. I am doing my memoirs and I am writing a book on B.P. Koirala as well as a novel … and I am also preparing an essay collection plus writing a book on journalism! So I do have several projects! [giggles]
What’s the novel about? Can you already tell us a little bit about it?
My third novel was just published and it was a big success on the Nepali market, a huge success. The second edition of my book was published within 45 days. It was about people like you, young and upcoming people. The contradictions of urban life are an essential part of this novel.
Forty-five days? It was all sold out already?
Yes! But they are not giving me much money [laughs]! Only 15 percent royalty.
But still you’re motivated to finish this other novel, right? It’s more like a passion; you don’t do it so much for the money?
No, I don’t do it for the money. Journalism and writing is my passion; essay writing is also my passion. And now I am writing another novel about these people who are in different countries and sending money to their family back home. I am planning to visit Jerusalem for researching this topic in depth. Just to talk with some Nepalis over there; then I am planning to go to Qatar and Kuwait to study the life of the Nepali people abroad. There are also plans to visit Korea this year.
Do you see a big market in the Near East countries as there are many migrant workers? They also might want to get updated through the media about the news here in Nepal!
No publisher has tried it in a big way so far. What I found out is that it’s very difficult for those people to read newspapers. They work for upto 12 or more hours per day, they simply don’t have the time! So they are dependent on receiving information quickly via the Internet. It’s very easy. You just need a small mobile phone and you have all the digital writings!
So that’s how we became more and more technological. Technology supports the mind. That’s the best thing for human beings. But we have also slowly become the slaves of technological devices…