Gorakhapatra maintains its enviable position as the country’s newspaper of record despite a series of political changes in the country in the preceding century. Neither has marked developments in printing as well as communication technologies, witnessed particularly since the 1970s, challenged its distinctive identity. Its publication, as a weekly on 6th May 1901 (24th Baishakh 1958 BS), serves as a constant public reminder that it was Gorakhapatra that marked the beginning of journalism in Nepal. Dev Shamasher, considered liberal among Rana rulers, continues to be remembered for this noble initiative. Gorakhapatra remained the sole publication for almost half a century, until the dawn of democracy in early 1951, carrying public announcements and official decrees. In fact, its responsibilities almost amounted to it being a gazette that prints public notices and authoritative accounts of the government’s plans and policies. “Gorakhapatra ceded its gazette-related role only after the publication of Nepal Gazette began, in 1951,” says Madan Kumar Bhattrai, author of two research-based books on Nepal’s foreign affairs. Bhattarai, a former foreign secretary, has spent several hours poring over files of Gorakhapatra for authoritative accounts of records relating to the conduct of the country’s external relations.
♦ Added Responsibilities However, Nepal Gazette, which was entrusted to print straight notices and notifications, could not be a substitute for the newspaper that gave detailed and extensive coverage of events and policies with background information. Gorkhapatra, which became a daily only in early 1961 (previously its periodicity had changed from a weekly to a twice-a-week and then three times a week), continued to be a newspaper under the government control. In 1962, a separate legislative act, transformed it into an autonomous entity, allowing it to add more publications to cater to the changing requirements of the Nepali society. Accordingly, Gorakhapatra Corporation launched an English daily, The Rising Nepal, in 1965. This was followed by Madhuparka, a Nepali literary monthly. Some other additions were made later. To many people in this country, Gorakhapatra was a synonym for a newspaper for several decades. And it was the only broadsheet Nepali daily up until 1993. This and its sister publication, The Rising Nepal, were fortunate to be led by erudite editors some of whom were considered intellectuals of high calibre. Their contributions have visibly reflected in Nepali journalism in subsequent years.
♦ Annals And Snapshots Journalism, after all, is the first draft of history. Recording this universally accepted fact, seasoned Indian journalist B.G. Verghese chose to name his memoir ‘First Draft’ (2010). Incidentally, this book contains Verghese’s early journalistic adventure while flying to Nepal at the time of the return of King Tribhuvan from exile in India, in February 1951. He says he got a bird’s eye-view of a tumultuous crowd impatiently waiting to welcome the king at Kathmandu’s Gauchar airport. Verghese had found a rare opportunity to watch the landing of the royal aircraft from the following plane, carrying royal baggage, where some smart Indian officials had “enabled to cadge a seat” for him. Anyhow, he must have shared a vivid description of that historic moment to his inquisitive audiences in India. Researcher/writer Mary McMohan alludes to two criteria on which basis some of the world’s prominent newspapers are described as ‘newspaper of record’. The first criterion includes papers publishing notices, legal notices and information which may be of interest to a community. The other criterion, she says, “a newspaper of record is considered to be a publication of high standards of journalism, publishing information which is vital, important and interesting.” The Washington Post and The New York Times are generally referred to as United States ‘newspaper of record.’ In 1971, these two papers published The Pentagon Papers that disclosed the history of US involvement in Indo-China, including its role in the Vietnam War. A year later the Post investigated the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon from the presidency.
♦ Examplery Role If examined in the context of the two different criteria mentioned above, one can conclude that Gorakhapatra has undisputedly been Nepal’s newspaper of record. Over time, it has not only published notices, speeches of kings and rulers, announcements and royal palace circulars (during the monarchy) but also has printed stories that are vital and important. Examples abound, but I want to briefly mention two occasions when Gorakhapatra outstandingly performed its duty. The first one happened in the time when Nepal was preparing for a referendum to be held in 1980. King Birendra’s proclamation wanted a popular plebiscite to decide whether the country was ready for a multi-party system or would opt for an existing party-less Panchayat system with ‘suitable reforms’. To facilitate the poll campaigns, a palace communique lifted restrictions on the press, encouraging both sides to present their case to the enthusiastic voters. But some of the influential palace officials and government ministers found it prudent to prevent the multi-party side from getting fair press coverage of their activities and public meetings. That parochial approach was conveyed to editors and publisher of Gorakhapatra’s publications. The idea was firmly opposed, instructions were not entertained. Instead, both proponents and opponents received fair coverage and a balanced editorial stand. The outcome of the referendum, however, went in favour of Panchayat by a margin of 10 per cent. The second incident happened in the aftermath of the political movement of 1990. A high-level panel, headed by a senior Supreme Court judge, was working on a new constitution aimed at transforming the Nepali monarchy into a constitutional one, resembling the British monarchy. Since such transformation would entail a reduction of the king’s executive powers, some of king Birendra’s privileged courtiers discreetly prepared a counter-draft intending to prevent possible massive erosion. They ostensibly intended to make their document available to the monarch when he would be holding actual negotiations with the interim prime minister as well as with the judge heading the official panel. Surprisingly, someone having access to that ‘royal draft’ leaked it to Gorakhapatra. The details of the plan turned out to be a scoop for the paper. And on that day, copies of Gorakhapatra were sold like hotcakes. In hindsight, one can give a second thought about the editorial decision to run the story without assessing its possible long-term implications. Gorakhapatra, after all, was not a tabloid paper.
♦ Hand-In-Hand Do we need a newspaper of record, in the first place? A ‘paper’ in this digital era? Questions of this nature are bound to surface. And these deserve to be addressed logically. Yes, Nepal must preserve all of its historical records as well as the institutions it possesses now, for posterity. And, as we all know, digital versions are essentially extensions of the printed newspapers. Why do people look for a print/ hard copy of what is already available on a computer? Marketing strategies and mechanisms have created some confusion in the interim---and resultant distortion, but adjustments are feasible sooner than later. Those who have invested in ‘online versions only’ may have to devise some other schemes as well for survival. Why are some people already talking about ‘digital fatigue? Why has the ‘fake news’ phenomenon accentuated lately? Studies and recent surveys have found that people have again begun to find print medium valuable mainly due to its trustworthiness and authenticity. Why is an average online media reader not sure if the available information is factually true? Serious studies are required on this subject. Finally, if he had not seen any future for ‘newspapers’ Jeff Bezos, an Internet entrepreneur and boss of Amazon, would not have spent US$250 million to buy The Washington Post. While its cultural value might have attracted Bezos in 2013, but hard to believe this being the decisive factor. Purportedly the Post’s digital version is working hand-in-hand with the print edition. And it began to make a modest profit three years after the ownership was transferred to Bezos. Doesn’t this business deal generate a palpable optimism for the print media-- including some of the newspapers of record?