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.

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