At the recent International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors (ISWNE) in Portland, Oregon July 10 – 15, it was not surprising that much of the discussion centred around the attacks on the free press in democracies and the slaughter of four journalists and one advertising salesperson in Maryland.
As more and more of us accept that the ‘enemy of the people is the press’, the Nepal story shared at the conference is a worthwhile reminder about the importance of a free and independent press.
Two representatives from the Nepal Chapter of ISWNE were in attendance. Kabir Rana, editor of Nepali’s National Weekly Newspaper, Deshantar Weekly, spoke at the Saturday evening awards banquet.
Rana reviewed the history of Nepali journalism, his pride in the 39-year history of the Deshantar Weekly and its crucial role in the political transformation of Nepal—popularly known as the journey from autocracy to democracy.
The printing press was brought to Nepal in 1851 by the Prime Minister. That same press printed the first weekly newspaper in Nepal on May 6, 1901. It was converted to a daily soon after and became a powerful mouthpiece for the autocratic Rana Regime and published only items favourable to the government.
However, a Nepali underground free press was being printed and circulated out of neighbouring India. Until 1951, “publications and newspapers were beyond the reach of the general public”, said Rana.
A form of democracy came that year but within a decade autocratic control returned under King Mahendra. The rulers again strictly controlled press activities and journalists frequently faced jail and severe punishment.
With the continued support of India, during the three decades of Mahendra rule, the free press saw themselves as mission journalists—their mission— to achieve democracy through media awareness and education. Mission journalism was instrumental in the passage of the 1980 referendum to return democracy to Nepal.
Nepal now has a constitution that protects the rights and freedoms of citizens and institutions and enshrines the right to free speech—the essential ingredient for truth and accountability of the powerful.
“Weekly newspapers helped institutionalize democratic rights of the people”, said Rana.
As effective as the press is in the journey from autocracy to democracy, a non-independent press is just as effective in the journey from democracy to autocracy.
Fox News in the United States and The Rebel in Canada have had astonishing success in promoting fake news and altering the belief of many citizens as to the value of democratic institutions and a free press.
The Nepali story is a valuable reminder of the symbiotic relationship between an independent free press and a strong democracy – easy to lose, hard to regain.