An election of journalists under the shadow of political partiesAlmost all candidates have the backing of political parties, leaving minimal space and chance for independent candidates to make it to the leadership, which many say could affect the independence of Federation of Nepali Journalists.
The triennial jamboree of the Federation of Nepali Journalists concluded on Wednesday, with mediapersons from across the country under the umbrella organisation of Nepali journalists voting to elect a new leadership. Though it was not an anomaly, this time around, it became hugely apparent that the Federation has come hugely under the shadow of politics. A majority of candidates had their clear alignments with political parties—just a handful of journalists filed their nominations as “independent” candidates.
Observers, including those who have led the Federation in the past, say excessive politicisation and domination of political parties in the journalists’ election is a cause for concern.
“A worrisome trend is emerging,” said Bhanubhakta Acharya, a researcher at the University of Ottawa on Digital Transformation and Innovation, who regularly writes on issues relating to the Nepali media. “The Federation seems to be in the complete grip of political parties.”
This time, the candidates were divided along two different panels—one aligned to the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre), the Madhav Nepal-Jhala Nath Khanal faction of the CPN-UML and Rastriya Janamorcha and the other coming together under the KP Sharma Oli faction of the UML, the Janata Samajbadi Party and Rastriya Prajatantra Party.
The alignments were a clear reflection of Nepal’s national political landscape at present.
The Congress and the Maoist Party are in a bid to forge an alliance against Oli and the Nepal-Khanal faction has its own battle to fight against Oli.
The Janata Samajbadi Party currently is in negotiations with Oli to clinch a power-sharing deal. The Rastriya Prajatantra Party lately has stood by Oli on issues like dissolving the House and holding early polls.
In Nepal, journalists have been historically aligned to political parties which have their own “journalist organisations”.
Nepal Press Union is close to the Nepali Congress, Press Chautari is close to the CPN-UML, Press Sangathan is affiliated to the Maoist Centre and Pragatishil Patrakar Sangh to Rastriya Janamorcha.
This time, there was an alliance between the Congress, the Maoist Centre, Nepal-Khanal faction of the UML and Rastriya Janamorcha.
And candidates were fielded accordingly.
Some aspirants, however, came under intense pressure.
Rajesh Mishra was one among them.
“We have come to such a pass that journalists have to knock the doors of party leaders to secure their candidacy,” said Mishra, an aspirant for the post of general secretary.
Since the Congress’ Press Union and Maoist Centre’s Press Sangathan had formed an alliance, the posts of Federation president and general secretary were divided between them.
Bipul Pokhrel was fielded for the post of Federation chairperson, making way for the Press Sangathan to field its candidate, Roshan Puri, for the post of general secretary.
For candidates like Mishra, there was no space.
He could not fight the election as an independent candidate amid intense pressure from political party honchos, he said.
“There is no room left for independent candidates,” said Mishra.
But his concern is not that he could not fight the election, he said.
“The problem is political parties are holding sway over the Federation and party-backed journalists and their associations enjoy influence,” said Mishra. “Those who have been in the field of journalism for years lack the wherewithal to assert their position.”
Some candidates, however, refused to withdraw their candidacy, only to face the ire of their affiliate organisation.
Nepal Press Union, which is affiliated to the Nepali Congress, has taken action against 11 candidates who had refused to withdraw and suspended them for at least six years. The allegation they face is they “dared to file their candidacy despite the union having fielded “authentic candidates”.
The Federation of Nepali Journalists is one of the oldest civil institutions in Nepal.
It was established by the late Nepali Congress leader Krishna Prasad Bhattarai some 65 years ago as Nepal Journalists Association. It acquired its current name on June 11, 1996.
Some scholars have contested the date of the establishment of the organisation, saying Satya Narayan Bahadur Shrestha had founded the Nepal Journalist Association four years before Bhattarai did, which the Federation has not acknowledged yet.
The major objectives of the Federation are to bring all professional journalists working in the country under a common umbrella and provide them an efficient and professional leadership; safeguard the welfare of all working journalists and protect their rights and amenities, according to its official website. “The Federation strives for the development of a responsible and accountable media and promotes the idea of press freedom.”
Many, however, wonder if the Federation could stick to its primary objective if it loses its independent status and becomes an arm of political parties whose candidates are elected to the leadership.
Gajendra Budhathoki, who was vying for the post of Federation chairperson as an independent candidate, said that he was disappointed at how journalists are turning into cadres of political parties.
Budhathoki was pitted against Pokhrel, who had the backing of the Congress affiliated Nepal Press Union, Maoist Centre-affiliated Press Sangathan and Khanal-Nepal faction of the UML-affiliated Press Chautari, and Nirmala Sharma behind whom was the Oli faction of Press Chautari.
Until Thursday evening, Pokhrel was clearly taking the lead, with Sharma trailing far behind. Budhathoki’s chances had evaporated.
“I didn’t have a flag but had an agenda. No resources, but willpower. No physical vote deployed by political syndicate but professional moral vote. I had expected that some 6,000 journalists would use their wisdom this time but our journalism has already plunged into the quagmire of parties,” Budhathoki wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday evening as the vote counting was underway. “I now feel that I was expecting a lot more from the educated new generation in journalism.”
In the lead up to the election day, Budhathoki had managed to garner quite some support on social media. He earned appreciation from various quarters for daring to challenge the party-backed candidates.
But to win an election, one needs votes, not the support on social media.
“I don’t think the Federation can raise the agenda of working journalists,” Budhathoki told the Post. “Those elected would invest their time and energy in serving the interests of the parties that backed them.”
The voting system this time, however, was different compared to earlier years.
The Federation used to elect leadership through their representatives.
But all the 13,180 voters this time had a chance to vote directly to the candidates of their choice.
It has been a matter of concern in the past also that when party-backed candidates win, they often hesitate to speak up against their political masters, especially when they are in power.
When the Govinda Acharya-led panel won the election more than three and a half years ago, Sher Bahadur Deuba was prime minister with Pushpa Kamal Dahal’s backing.
Then too, Nepal Press Union affiliated to the Nepali Congress and Press Centre affiliated to the Maoist Centre had forged an alliance against Press Chautari, as its “parent” party the UML was in opposition.
But in May 2018, the UML and the Maoist Centre merged, thereby bringing the affiliate press organisations together.
However, a month before the Federation election this time, the Supreme Court revived the UML and the Maoist Centre, and accordingly the press unions under them also split. Some different dynamics also came into play. The Nepal-Khanal faction is currently fighting against Oli.
Taking this cue, the press organisations of the Congress and the Maoist Centre got the backing of those under the Nepal-Khanal faction as well.
Some former leaders of the Federation say the party-backed elected leadership will have a challenge before them to develop the Federation as a more independent and professional organisation.
“After all they are journalists and even if they are elected to the leadership position with the party’s backing, they will have to perform their duty as mediapersons,” said Shiva Gaunle, former chair of the Federation. “This will be a huge challenge but that’s how we learn. And the elected leadership must understand that as journalists, their basic duty is to speak truth to power and hold those in power to account.”
Gaunle is also hopeful that the direct election system will encourage more independent candidates to file their candidacy in the coming days.
“With the direct voting system, professional journalists have dared to file their candidacy for different positions this time,” Gaunle told the Post. “I am hopeful that this new system will gradually encourage professional and independent journalists to stand up.”
Historically, the Nepali media has played a crucial role in shaping up the country’s democratic process. During the Panchayat regime, when the press was muzzled, vernacular weeklies were the only source of information for the public. Such weeklies were backed by the parties, which at that time were banned.
Journalists who were part of such weeklies that ran aggressive campaigns against the Panchayat regime say the trend of journalists today seeking the blessings of political parties is worrisome. But journalism as a profession has seen a substantial growth and it would be wrong to brand journalists as parties’ mere cadres even if they win the election with the backing of the respective parties, according to them.
“My observation is that though journalists seek the support of political parties during elections, those elected have not hesitated to speak against the same parties when they are in power, especially when they attack press freedom,” said Harihar Birahi, a senior journalist and former chairperson of the Federation who once edited an extremely popular vernacular weekly Sapatahik Bimarsha, with its affiliation to the Nepali Congress. “This time pro-democratic and progressive forces seem to shine, as those backed by regressive forces are going to face a drubbing.”
Birahi, who led the federation from 1995-1998, said journalists who have played a crucial role in Nepal’s political changes should work hard to protect the hard-earned gains.
According to him, journalists are in a compulsion to have the backing of journalists’ associations close to political parties also because it’s difficult to manage election expenses. But such a trend will decrease as professionalism increases, he said.
“The Federation leaders must uphold their professional spirit and values instead of serving the interests of parties that backed them,” said Birahi, who has also led the Press Council Nepal. “Change comes gradually. Our journalism is improving by the day. Soon we will achieve the level of professionalism when political parties won’t be able to have their influence on journalists even if leaders wish so.”
Disclaimer: Tika R Pradhan is a former member of the Federation of Nepali Journalists.