The journey of private media in NepalCurrently, the online media are emerging at a rapid pace while the traditional private media are striving to retain their space.
It all began with the adoption of democracy following the 1950 movement. The interim constitution promulgated in 1951 had the provisions for the right to freedom of expression and publication—and it was the starting point for Nepal’s private media.
Politically aware youths, directly or indirectly connected to the movement, were the pioneers to launch newspapers after 1951. Most of them were exposed to political movements and media in the Indian cities of Banaras, Patna and so on. A day after the proclamation of democracy by King Tribhuvan, the first daily Nepali newspaper, Awaaj, was published on February 19, 1951, under the editorship of Siddhi Charan Shrestha. In July 1956, Gopal Das Shrestha launched Nepal’s English pioneer daily The Commoner, which marked the beginning of English-language journalism in Nepal. He was also briefly associated with Awaaj.
In the decade following the advent of democracy, many Nepali-language newspapers like Sandesh, Naya Samaj, Sahi Bato, Mahila, Janamitra, Prajatantra, Rastrabani, Nepal Samachar, and Diyalo were published. Likewise, The Commoner, Everest News, and Weekly Mirror, were published in English.
Many political publications also existed at the time.
“Political publications were also in abundance between the establishment of democracy and the beginning of the Panchayat system. The political parties had their own publications to disseminate their ideologies and opinions among the public. Independent journalism had just been born,” said Rajendra Dahal, a senior journalist.
Then began the Panchayat-era—the toughest time for journalism. Weekly newspapers were widespread, despite strong restrictions against the media. As King Mahendra ended multiparty democracy and imposed partyless Panchayat in December 1960, Nepal’s nascent media faced dark days for the following three decades.
Professor P Kharel said if the private media wrote against the monarchy, they would be persecuted, or shut down or jailed and there was no environment for investment.
According to Kharel, before 1990, there were no stringers and reporters outside the Kathmandu Valley, so the issues out of the valley would not be covered in national newspapers. “The dailies during the Panchayat would only be from two to four pages. ‘‘Mission journalism’ was also practised by some popular weekly newspapers at the time in favour of the political parties. Some had practised it in favour of the Panchayat system too,” he said.
Newspapers would get shut down quite often during the Panchayat era. The referendum in 1980 brought winds of change blowing in the media and the Nepali society as well.
After the referendum was announced, the two competitive forces—the partyless Panchayat system and the multiparty democracy—had to voice their opinions. So, for one year of publicity, the media in favour of democracy enjoyed freedom even though the political parties were banned.
“The freedom influenced the Nepali society as well, and as the society had tasted free press, it did not want to walk backwards,” said Dahal.
So, even while the Panchayat system continued, various news media including private newspapers were launched. They began to struggle more against the existing system. Yet, the laws were too controlling. The newspapers had to be registered at the District Administration Office and if any news dissatisfied the chief district officer (CDO), they would cancel the registration of the publication.
That would not deter the media from publishing, however. If the registration was cancelled, they would launch an already-registered newspaper with similar content and layout. “This would continue, every time the state tried to cancel the registration of newspapers,” Dahal added. The courts used to rule in favour of the newspapers in some cases, which also boosted confidence in the media fraternity during such a difficult time.
“Parties were still prohibited, anti-monarchy content was strictly restricted. If we had to write political parties’ names, we would use adjectives such as ‘restricted’ before the names,” Dahal recalled.
Some major newspapers and magazines that were launched during the Panchayat era were Naya Nepal, Naya Samaj, Hamro Desh, Nirman (published from Biratnagar), Saptahik Manch, Jana Sambad, Deshantar, Jana Jeeven (Birgunj published from), Panchayat Bato, Himalayan Guardian, Dainik Nirnaya (published from Pokhara and Bhairahawa), Nepal Review and so on. The newspapers played a vital role in the beginning of a new movement in Nepal that would eventually restore democracy.
Foreign media had also started to influence the Nepali society and political fraternity by the 1990s. Many Indian newspapers and magazines were sold in large numbers in Nepal. The reinstatement of the multi-party democracy in 1990 was the turning point for Nepali media.
However, the 1990 Constitution of Nepal brought a seachange in the Nepali media. It was a remarkable achievement in terms of freedom of expression and press freedom. The constitution guaranteed the press freedom by restricting the cancellation of newspaper registrations, newspaper closures and censorship.
“After the constitution of 1990, investments in media shot up,” said senior journalist Jagat Nepal.
Professor Kharel said, “The number of newspapers published outside the Kathmandu valley also rose after 1990.”
Kantipur group and many other broadsheet dailies were launched, establishing a mass-level industry. “Corporate culture developed and beat reporting started. Nepali private media began shaping public opinion in the Nepali society and making the government accountable. Professionalism began,” Nepal added.
Eventually, new technology led to the establishment of private radios and television.
The state-owned Radio Nepal had monopoly over airwaves from 1951 to 1997, until the first independent Radio Sagarmatha was launched in May 1997 as a community radio. Nepal became the first country with a community radio in South Asia. After that, many private FM stations were established in Nepal.
At first, the state was reluctant to issue radio licences to the private sector, but they could not stop it.
Similarly, the state-owned Nepal Television started in 1985 and it had the monopoly in television broadcasting. But the entry of Kantipur TV and Image Channel in 2003 pioneered private television broadcasting in Nepal.
After the political change of 1990, the public also started to seek quality content in the media. Thus, diverse publications began in the English language. And Nepal’s private media did not look back after 1990.
The main hurdle in between was the Maoist insurgency that began in 1996, as the war adversely impacted the media. Nevertheless, the media continued publishing contents. Then, Gyanendra Shah laid censorship, pushing the media into crisis.
“Nepal’s media, by then, had already faced many struggles and problems, and the society was also habituated. So, the media survived,” said Dahal.
The interim constitution 2007 continued the provisions of the 1990 constitution regarding press freedom. Eventually, online journalism emerged and is now the most influential media platform in Nepal. Every newspaper, television, and radio are publishing content online.
The Kathmandu Post, a sister publication of Kantipur daily, started its online journey in September 1995 on the University of Illinois website, with the collective efforts of Kantipur Publications, Mercantile Communications, and an engineering student at the University, Rajendra Shrestha.
The beginning of The Kathmandu Post’s online journey motivated other major media houses in Nepal to go online. Before 2000, the online journey of media in Nepal was mostly for the replication of the contents in print and archiving the contents. There were no independent online news portals that did the reporting themselves. The wait was finally over when Kantipur Publications launched kantipuronline.com in April 2000 which did reporting, in addition to the replication of the contents of the newspaper. An online news publication of Kantipur Publications Pvt Ltd started reporting and webcasting online news contents in addition to uploading newspapers’ contents.
Currently, there are more than 2,500 registered news websites in Nepal.
Private media now: Challenges galore
Nepal’s private media have faced lots of ups and downs. Yet, it is going through an existential crisis as big media are facing challenges to update themselves with technological developments, said Dahal. “As such, the traditional private media is failing to hold their audience. New generation is not agreeing to become the audience of the content they produce.”
The media faced major blows in the last decade. “Crisis hit the private media time and again, before they could master investigative reporting, and in-depth and creative content publishing,” Dahal added.
According to Nepal, the senior journalist, Nepal’s private media is in yet another transitional phase now. “Online media are emerging at a rapid pace and the big private media are losing their space.”