While the government is keen to set limits, new media has the potential to lead public discourseThe authorities find it offensive when the fearless speak the truth. The singer’s attempt to voice the present-day reality irked the supporters of those who currently run the state’s affairs, even though Sharma’s satire was directed against successive governments.
Nepali folk singer Pashupati Sharma received a lot of attention this past week for his new single Lootna sake loota (loot if you can), but not in the way he must have expected. After being threatened by a youth wing affiliated to the ruling communist party, Sharma pulled his song from YouTube. While numerous copies of the original music video that satirises the corruption rampant in Nepal were uploaded to the video-sharing site, many national, and a few international media outlets, carried reports of the incident, saying that the Nepal government had become intolerant of dissent.
As this issue gradually settles, the episode brings to the fore how powerful citizen voices have become with the advent of alternative media, and what a profound effect art and the audio-visual medium can have on people. As corruption becomes the norm rather than the exception in Nepal, Sharma’s wittily-penned words managed to strike a chord with the entire nation.
Although there were divergent views in support and against Sharma’s choice of words in the song, there was mutual consensus among the public that extortionists thrive in the country. Common people are cheated everywhere. If you have a child to send to school, its operators fleece you. If you fall sick and go to the doctor, the hospital will rob you of your last rupee. There are no fair price shops. Banks charge high interest rates on loans but depositors don’t get good returns on their money. While people in remote rural areas are dying due to a lack of basic medicines, the country’s top officials move about in sleek cars. Sharma’s message is that no matter how much you hoard cash through questionable means, nobody is going to grill you for its source. And it’s hard to prove the singer wrong.
The authorities find it offensive when the fearless speak the truth. The singer’s attempt to voice the present-day reality irked the supporters of those who currently run the state’s affairs, even though Sharma’s satire was directed against successive governments. After receiving a threatening phone call, the singer deleted his video. He has promised listeners he will put it up again after some modifications, but has yet to do so.
While traditional media may be easier to control, it’s harder to tame new media, even with the strict laws that the government is passing. Authorities have a number of tools to curb the freedom exercised by old media, as they have huge investments. While online news portals are cheaper to run, platforms like social networks and blogs have fewer costs to maintain.
When the government banned thousands of porn sites months ago, advocates of freedom and an unhindered flow of information protested the decision. Their concern was probably not that people would have no access to pornographic content but that the government should find no pretext in the future to block sites that disseminate information critical of the state.
Some forms of media in Nepal have yet to mature, but their growth has been phenomenally impressive. Some hail Nepal’s FM radio as the most powerful in all of South Asia. Lately, there has been an exponential rise in the number of online news sites. With this proliferation, people not comfortable with content that is widely shared are putting on labels such as ‘fake news’.
One of the formats of information sharing attracting eyeballs today is video, for its broad appeal. In his article for the anniversary supplement of The Kathmandu Post, documentary producer Kamal Kumar writes about his ‘Herne Katha’ colleague Bidhya Chapagain. Within a year of the team launching their audio-visual platform for storytelling, the channel has won hearts and set itself apart from the rest—mostly with intriguing stories of the common people’s suffering. Uploaded at regular intervals of two weeks, ‘Herne Katha’ videos have been a powerful journalistic tool. For one, in a country where qualified and well-paid government teachers shirk their duties, causing freefall in the quality of public school education, an episode of ‘Herne Katha’ tells the story of a teacher who volunteered at a school for years simply because he could not tolerate seeing the happy faces of his pupils overcome by gloom should he have decided to leave.
As it appears now, new media, particularly multimedia platforms, will lead public discourse and set our social and political agenda. While the government looks keen to set limits, it pays to honour the medium’s plurality. Media will flourish and reform on its own—through competition among rivals. The government’s role comes in creating a level playing field. In case of shortcomings due to a lack of resources or technical expertise, the government can held by filling in resource and technological gaps. Unwanted controls will only replay the Pashupati Sharma self-censorship episode, and lead to sweeping public protest. The government’s unwanted intervention not only backfired but also proved once again how society’s messengers cannot be gagged. v
The writer tweets @GuragainMohan