Sunday, August 31, 2014

Hong Kong's Press Freedom in Jeopardy

Rabin Man Shakya

It was in 2004 when I was going to Nepal from the US back and forth, I was flying aboard Cathay Pacific Boeing via Hong Kong that I had a chance  to read English language newspapers published from Hong Kong like the South China Morning Post. I was pretty much impressed by news, views, features and editorial contents of the Hong Kong newspapers and I must say that South China Morning Post was an example of a quality newspaper, even when Hong Kong was already a part of Peoples' Republic of China.

But, today perennial tug of war is going on between the independent journalism and pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong. And the independent Hong Kong news outlets are already feeling strong pressure from Beijing to toe its line. As a result, the Hong Kong newspapers have been hamstrung by the increasing as well as overt and covert interference by Beijing.

According to news stories published recently, officers from the anti-corruption agency in Hong Kong searched the home of the media tycoon Jimmy Lai on Thursday, a month after leaked documents suggested  that he had made substantial donations to local pro-democracy parties and politicians. This sudden search of Lai's home has been termed "political persecution" by Hong Kong media.

Jimmy Lai is an outspoken supporter of the democracy movement in Hong Kong. Lai owns Apple Daily, one of the influential Chinese language daily newspaper in Hong Kong with sales of 190,000 copies. Likewise, in February this year a prominent independent Hong Kong journalist Kevin Lau Chun-to was assaulted and was seriously wounded. The Hong Kong journalists have been organizing rallies to protest what they feel as "waning press freedom".

Before its sovereignty was handed over to China in 1997, Hong Kong was one of the best epitomes of the highest degrees of press freedom in Asia. But now Hong Kong ranks 61st of 180 countries in 2014 Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Press Freedom Index.

Not long ago, RWB stated:"A recent visit to Hong Kong by RWB allowed the organization to hear from numerous journalists, netizens and information freedom defenders. They all shared the view that freedom of information is eroding, with press freedom hampered by self-censorship as well as pressure from within some news organizations."

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Social Media and Nepal's Senior Citizens

Rabin Man Shakya

Social media is fast changing the perspectives and lifestyle of the people across the world. Even in countries like Nepal, social media is creating a new and diverse audience for news and views making deep inroads into the life of the people.

But, senior citizens, the septuagenarian and octogenarian people of Nepal are still finding their footing less and less when it comes to social media. So why are the majority of Nepal's senior citizens lagging behind in the social media and Internet use?

In the system of use of social media and Internet by the total population, the ranking of Nepal may still be one of the lowest in the world. Nepal is one of the poorest and least developed countries of the world where smart phones, tablets and laptops are still considered to be luxury. No one disputes the fact that the economic situation has worsened in Nepal and development indicators present a dismal scenario. For this, the blame is attributed to political instability and economic uncertainty gripping the country. There is a sense that despite political gains (toppling of monarchy) in recent years, Nepal's economic and social trajectory is still highly uncertain.

Illiteracy especially the adult illiteracy is one of the highest in Nepal. Because of illiteracy, majority of Nepal's senior citizens can barely handle and use cell phones, let alone use smart phones and laptops. Electricity is an essential component for using laptops and smart phones, but Nepal is constantly and perennially short of power. Despite vast hydro power potential, load shedding has been extended up to 14 hours a day. And, also, there is no electricity, at all, in most of the rural mountainous areas of Nepal. Hence, Internet access is limited mainly in the urban areas. Lackadaisical government policy vis-a-vis attracting senior citizens' interest in Internet use is equally responsible for this.

But here in the US, the scenario is totally different. According to a study conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, approximately 87 per cent of American senior citizens use online search engines such as Google, and a study conducted by the Nielsen Company found that 88.6 percent of American senior citizens use the Internet to check their e-mails.

The fact that majority of American septuagenarian, octogenarian and even centenarians are using the Internet is the testimony to the fact that age is no factor when learning the ins and outs of social media. So given the appropriate atmosphere, opportunities and training, Nepalese senior citizens can do the same. With everything just a click away in the age of smart phones, social media has served as a primary channel of giving full vent to happiness, sadness, feelings, emotions, criticisms and suggestions.

Becoming a part of the digital era could have changed the lives of  the Nepalese senior citizens. Social media could have shown them that there is so much going on in the world. Today more than ever, the social media is exploding with new information, photos, comments, quotes, articles and views, and it is just sad to note that the participation of Nepalese senior citizens in the social media is still negligible.

Right now, social media is deeply embedded with the educated-urban people of Nepal and social media to become the essential activity of the Nepalese senior citizens is still a dream that is difficult to come true any time soon.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Nepalese Journalism, Press Freedom During Panchayat Era

By Rabin Man Shakya
Former Lecturer of Journalism, Peoples Campus and RR Campus, TU.

Nepal was under the grip of monarchy and Panchayat misrule for thirty years from 1960 to 1990, when the whole world was bitterly polarized and divided into two different lines: democratic and communist lines, heavily influenced by the Cold War between the US and the ex-USSR.

Today's younger generation of digital journalism and social media age probably cannot imagine how the media scenario looked like in the Panchayat days. The coup d' etat orchestrated by King Mahendra to overthrow the parliamentary government with the Nepali congress in power in December 1960 and the restrictions imposed on press freedom put the Nepalese press in a vulnerable situation. All the political parties were banned, press freedom and freedom of expression were substantially curtailed.

The important doctrines of the Panchayat system were active royal leadership, partylessness, class coordination and decentralization. The historical development has clearly demonstrated the fact that the history of political system of Panchayat can be divided into two periods:

1. The period of repressive Panchayat system 1960-1979:
Some leading newspapers of this period were: Samaj, Naya Samaj, Nabin Khabar, Samikchha, Matribhumi, Naya Sandesh, Rastra Pukar, The Commoner and The Motherland.
2. The period of relatively liberal Panchayat system:
During the post-referendum period, the journalistic scenario was dominated by the opposition press. The notable newspapers during this period were: Bimarsha, Jan Jyoti, Chhalphal, Deshanter, Dristi, Saptahik Mancha, etc.

Since Panchayat was a political system introduced in Nepal after the political coup in 1960, so it was palpable that the emergence of the pro-Panchayat press was designed as an effective tool of the regime's massive political indoctrination. The monarchy often stood as the stumbling block in the process of democratization of the Nepalese society in general and Nepalese press in particular. Monarchy allowed only the veneer of press freedom to take hold.

Not only did the monarchy pit one banned political party against the other to bolster its position, it also doled out financial help to pro-Panchayat newspaper editors to wage war against the dissenting newspapers and banned opposition forces.

Immediately after the installation of the new regime on December 26, 1960, B.B. Thapa, the then Home Minister warned the press that criticism, made with any ulterior motive or aimed at obstructing national progress by encouraging instability in the country, would not be tolerated.

Likewise, still in 1965, the then Minister of Publicity, die-hard Panchayat supporter Bedanand Jha declared: "In order to raise the standard of Nepalese journalists and in order to do away with the multi-party political feelings and unworthy elements, the prime objective had been taken into consideration, so that the followers of the Panchayat system in journalism might be bolstered in a strong position." Thus, the ruling elite of the Panchayat system very well understood the role of the press and propaganda in consolidating their position.

The Gorkhapatra corporation, the Rastriya Samachar Samiti (RSS: the National News Agency), Radio Nepal, Nepal Television, were all the propaganda tools of the Panchayat regime to justify its rule. Besides, the government had doled out financial assistance to a number of newspapers to wage war against the pro-democracy and leftist newspapers.

The Press and Publication Acts enforced in 1963 and 1975, respectively, were the draconian measures intended to deal with the dissenting newspapers. Section 30 of the press and publication act 1975 stated: "His Majesty's Government may issue an order directing the suspension of any news, or publication in case it is deemed reasonable to do so in the public interest. No appeal or complaint shall be entertained against such order."

The challenges facing the pro-democracy and pro-leftist newspapers were indeed formidable since those newspapers had to survive in a politically suffocating atmosphere. It was during this era that so many journalists had encountered harassment and arrests for what they wrote. In a blatant assault on press freedom, journalist Padam Thakurathi was the victim of fatal attack in 2043 B.S. but he survived the assassination bid.

So many newspapers which dared to differ from His Majesty's Government or even slightly criticized it were immediately banned, their editors arrested. Lack of press freedom had a poisonous impact on the quality of the Nepalese journalism and it took its toll on the media as well.

Despite the repressive nature of the regime, not everything was dark: there was light at the end of the tunnel too. Journalism education was launched by the Tribhuvan University and Nepal Television started its broadcasting during the Panchayat era.

The grand old lady of the Nepalese journalism, "The Gorkhapatra," started to come out as a daily broadsheet newspaper in 1961. The nation's first broadsheet English language newspaper "The Rising Nepal" was also launched in 1965 during the Panchayat era.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

US, UK Media Plagued by Excessive Celebrity Coverage

Rabin Man Shakya
Former Lecturer of Journalism, Peoples Campus and RR Campus, TU.

Wikipedia describes celebrity journalism as another area of journalistic genre which "focuses on the personal lives of people, primarily celebrities, including movie and stage actors, musical artists, models and photographers, other notable people in the entertainment industry, as well as people who seek attention, such as politicians and people thrust into the attention of the public, such as people who do something newsworthy."

It continues: "Celebrity journalism differs from feature writing, in that it focuses on people who are either already famous or are especially attractive -- and  often covers celebrities obsessively, to the point of using unethical behavior to provide coverage."

Paparazzi reporting, lifestyles of Hollywood stars, dating and weddings of the celebs, conflict, cheating and divorce of the stars, obsession over stars' babies, pregnancies, their bizarre behavior and photos are a always the good sources of celebrity journalism here in the US.

The media in today's world exercises tremendous influence in the way people think and behave. And no doubt, the American journalism is a cornerstone of American democracy and governance. But sadly enough, lately, US media's obsession with celebrities, fads, polls and ratings means that they sometimes miss bigger stories and issues. More than anywhere, Justin Bieber, Jennifer Lopez, Kendra Wilkinson, the Kardashian sisters and other celebrities are making constant headlines in the US media.

Likewise, arrests of the Hollywood stars, prominent sports people and politicians for their bizarre illegal activities  are more fodder for the celebrity coverage here in the US. Celebrity reporting is extensively carried out by the UK tabloids The Sun, The Telegraph and The Daily Mail whereas in the US, the Enquirer, People, Us Weekly, In Touch, Life & Style weekly magazines disseminate the celebrity reporting. Questionable reporting practices in "Celebrity Reporting" were time and again reported in the UK as well as the US, and there were a plenty of cases where the "victims" of the gossip stories sued the different media outlets in the UK and the US for questionable reporting practices and for libel and defamation.

If the US and UK media are more plagued by the celebrity coverage, journalism of the countries like Nepal are more politicized, polarized and trivialized.

Remember, the death of Princess Diana was caused by the paparazzi who were following her car. Paparazzi journalism has done no good for the cause of healthy journalism. The excessive coverage of the celebrity news and activities by the US and UK media has been castigated by the media observers, but the pathetic side of the journalism here is that the polls and ratings, not the quality, determine the destiny of the TV programs and their survival

As a matter of fact, celebrity journalism is gaining momentum not only in countries like the US and the UK, but slowly and steadily the celebrity journalism is taking root across the world. Today more than ever, money, sex, scandals and crime sell pretty much. That is why reporting of celebrities interests most of the people across the world. Writing salacious gossips about the celebrities is one of the modus operandi of the celebrity journalism, and surprisingly, readers love to read salacious gossips that enhance the circulation of the tabloids and increase the number of "views" of the bloggers and online journalism.

Back in 1993-94 when I was with The Rising Nepal, I had the privilege to interview Nepalese celebrities cum luminaries: Ambar Gurung, Gopal Yonjan, Tara Devi, Nati Kaji, Shiva Shankar,  Prem Dhoj, Yogesh Vaidya, Harihar Sharma, Ravi Shah, Mithila Sharma, Madan Krishna Shrestha and Hari Bansha Acharya and the list goes on. The interview materials were published in my regular weekly column "Lifestyle" in The Rising Nepal in 1993-94. And, though my articles were based on the interactions and interviews with the senior Nepalese celebrities, it was, of course, not a part of celebrity journalism.

The effects of globalization of media were evident in Nepalese journalism too, and as a result, celebrity journalism is slowly and gradually making inroads into Nepalese media as well. That's because the existence of celebrity coverage is changing in a world of transparent social media and online journalism where everyone could be a journalist or netizen.

Just one little example: News of notorious Don Dinesh Adhikari Chari's death recently in a police encounter in Kathmandu has drawn an extensive coverage both in social media and the mainstream media in Nepal, thereby making obscure model Khoosbu Oli, the Don's alleged girlfriend a cause celebre. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Press is the Fourth Estate and Social Media the Fifth Estate

By Rabin Man Shakya
Former Lecturer of Journalism, Peoples Campus and RR Campus, TU.

The Press is referred to as the Fourth Estate for its effective role to mould  the public opinion for or against the crucial and burning issues facing the community or the nation. The Press is assumed to play a vital social and community role in the context of the First Estate (government), the Second Estate (judiciary) and the Third Estate (church). The Press is one of the strongest weapons in showing the world the devastating consequences of war, injustice, impunity, wrongdoings and malpractices. An independent and free media is a cornerstone of democracy and good governance.

To say the least, Nepal's political parties are not working effectively for the cause of the people. The Nepalese political stalwarts seem to be convinced that the Nepalese people have no alternatives left to supporting the crooked, nefarious and corrupt leaders. The aspirations of the Nepalese people have been shattered time and again by these shrewd and cunning politicos. In such a situation, the role of media and social media is particularly important in exerting pressure on the politicians and political parties to become more responsible, more honest and to rise above the petty partisan and parochial interest in issues of national interest.

Comparing to young people and adults in their 30s and 50s, the septuagenarian and octogenarian people are far less  attracted to the social media sites, than reading newspapers and watching  TV for infotainment. In case of developing countries like Nepal, the number of the the people in their seventies and eighties using the social media is even negligible. The senior citizens are still relying on the traditional journalism for getting news and information, more so in case  of developing countries like Nepal.

In case of the US, more than 90 per cent of the American adults have a cell phone and more than half are smart phones which are pretty much used for Internet and social media activities as well enabling them to work as small laptops. Social media is creating a new audience for news, just as TV did a half century ago. In case of newspapers, radio and TV, it is one voice speaking to many, giving the same message to many people. But with social media, it is many voices being disseminated to a number of people instantly.

Therefore, today more than ever, people are using smart phones and tablets to learn about what is happening in the world. No wonder, the circulation of newspapers and magazines are on the decline in advanced countries like the US, and no wonder, the online news revenue has surpassed the revenue of the print journalism prompting the newspapers to jump on the online news bandwagon.

Tech titans Google and Facebook are changing the perspectives, lifestyle and cultures of the people across the world. Today more than ever, the social media is exploding with new information, photos, comments, quotes, articles and views. It goes without saying the role of social media is more effective, more far-reaching and more ubiquitous than the mainstream journalism. Therefore, it is no wonder that the social media is being called the Fifth Estate by some pundits.

As of now, there are still some pitfalls in case of the social media. Social media (like Twitter) can not tell the story or the breaking news in detail. Cases of factual inaccuracies in the social media "breaking news" is rampant, and  the social responsibility  factor is violated more in the social media than in the mainstream journalism.

Therefore, even if the role of social media is more ubiquitous than the mainstream journalism, the social media does not and can not replace the mainstream media, at least for now. Watchdog role of the traditional mainstream journalism is still more relevant and more important than the social media.