Oli now has problems with the way the media addresses individualsOli expressed displeasure over the media’s use of the informal Nepali pronoun ‘timi’.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on Tuesday launched a vitriolic attack on journalists, saying media persons have forgotten civility and decorum. Speaking at a programme in the Capital, Oli said that journalists do not even show respect to their parents, as they do not call their father “tapai”, a respectful form of address in Nepali.
“Journalists do not use ‘tapai’ even for their fathers. They use ‘timi’, as they have developed a penchant for using ‘you’ from the English language,” said Oli.
In English, the ‘you’ applies to all and has no connotation with respect, but in Nepali, there are at least five words that can be used as the second person pronoun. A majority of vernacular papers in Nepal, except for Gorkhapatra, the government’s mouthpiece, refers to politicians as ‘timi’ in the news. Everyone, including the president and the prime minister, is identified as ‘timi’ and its relevant verb modifiers.
“Nepali media has been using ‘timi’ as the second person pronoun for the last 13 years,” said P Kharel, a former editor who teaches journalism and mass communication at Tribhuvan University. “If the media sets the trend, we should accept it, as it does not disparage anyone.”
Kharel said that Oli should read the newspapers published by the office bearers of the Press Council, the government-sanctioned body that looks after complaints against the media, before disparaging the language used by the media. Members of the Press Council all have their own newspapers, which they own and edit, and where they use ‘timi’ to refer to politicians and all individuals.
“If the prime minister feels uncomfortable with the language used by the media, the Press Council is the proper agency where he can file his complaints,” said Kharel.
During the Panchayat days, the private sector had yet to make a foray into mainstream journalism, and most weekly tabloids did what they called “mission journalism”, where they advocated causes like democracy during the autocratic Panchayat system. Gorkhapatra and the English-language The Rising Nepal were the only two daily broadsheets, and since they were owned by the government, they published stories extolling the royals and the prevailing system.
After the restoration of democracy in 1990, the private sector started publishing newspapers and the burgeoning media industry had to incorporate new democratic values, not just in their journalism but also in their language. In those days, when the constitutional monarchy still existed, the king, queen and royals were referred to with ‘mausuf’, the highest second person pronoun in Nepali, while leaders were referred to as ‘tapai’, the next highest.
In 2008, Nepal abolished monarchy and adopted a federal republican set-up. With the monarchy gone, the newspaper had to yet again adapt to a new system with new values. A little over a decade ago, a consensus was reached among the vernacular papers that everyone should be referred to with ‘timi’, which is informal, colloquial and can apply to everyone regardless of stature.
Oli’s lamentation of a bygone era and his remarks over how the media—and journalists—should refer to individuals in writing come at a time when ruling party politicians have been facing criticism for acting like “new kings”.
Suresh Acharya, former president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, the umbrella body of journalists in Nepal, said that Oli’s unhappiness with the media stems not from the language employed but its content.
“Oli does not like the content of the Nepali media,” Acharya told the Post. “He thinks that he is doing a great job and the media should exalt him and his government.”
While criticising the media, Oli also expressed displeasure over social media.
“If we look at Nepali society and social sites, the walls of civilisation are being demolished. There is no decency left,” said Oli.
Social media was quick to respond to Oli’s jabs.
“His highness Oli’s ego and expectations have soared. Respect needs to come from within others, so there is no point in having expectations in this regard,” one Facebook user wrote facetiously.
Journalist Shiv Dahal, sharing a video clip of Oli’s criticisms, said that the prime minister has now started taking journalism classes.
However, Kundan Aryal, Oli’s press adviser, defended the prime minister, saying that the language employed by the media has long been an issue.
“Such an insulting word kills the Nepali language. Nepali language is not as easy as English,” said Aryal, who also teaches journalism. “It’s easy in the English language because it does not have a hierarchy, but in Nepali we follow a hierarchy.”
That is exactly what the media deliberated on when they came up with the idea of referring to all individuals with the same pronoun and its associated verb modifiers, as referring to different individuals with different forms of address would reify a class system. A politician is referred to with a pronoun and verb of a “higher degree” and a regular individual referred to with a lower one would lead to the creation of an implicit hierarchy.
Aryal does not agree.
“A section of the Nepali media has failed to give respect to individuals,” he said.
Acharya, the former president of the journalists’ umbrella body, said that the kind of language the media uses is guided by ethics and individual style books, not by the government’s dictates.
“The prime minister’s repeated vilification of journalists and the media clearly shows that he is intolerant of criticism,” said Acharya.
The Oli administration’s increasing aversion towards the media has been evident in a number of controversial bills it has introduced in recent months.
The Media Council Bill has been met with great criticism, as some of its provisions, media freedom advocates say, are aimed at stifling press freedom and freedom of speech.
But it’s not just Oli. Most Cabinet ministers do not hold the media in high regard, despite the fact that the Nepali media played a huge role in the reinstatement of democracy.
Gokul Baskota, the minister for communication and information technology, who is considered Oli’s right hand, has made it a habit of seizing every opportunity to criticise the media.
Freedom of expression activists have long been drawing attention to the Oli administration’s tendency to muzzle dissent. Immediately after its formation in February last year, the Oli government tried to put a ban on protests at Maitighar Mandala, a central gathering point for protestors. It was only after protests and criticism that it relented.
Bhrikuti Rai contributed reporting.