The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), in its statute, expresses its commitment to free press and professional and accountable journalism. On April 7, the FNJ held its historic elections of its chapters, provinces and central level bodies. This is the first time it has adopted direct election system in which its 13,000 members working in print, radio, TV and online media, and freelancers cast their ballots to pick its leadership. However, along with its new structures, the umbrella organisation of the Nepali journalists needs to review its agenda and working modality to meet the current challenges and achieve its stated goals. Despite its democratic procedures and framework to choose the leadership, the FNJ is yet to content many competent and professional journalists by evolving itself as functional organisation devoted to the professional growth of media sector. Nepal's media landscape has significantly been transformed in terms of market size, mode of production and content diversity during the last three decades. In the changed scenario, it is not able to address the policy issues concerning the present and future of Nepali journalism.
Conducive atmosphere With the nation ushering in democratic era in 1951, it witnessed atmosphere conducive to the development of journalism. Satya Narayan Bahadur Shrestha, a relatively less known figure, established Nepal Journalist Association (NJA) but it could not thrive as expected as Nepali journalism was still at its early phase of development. Later, senior politician Krishna Prasad Bhattarai reorganised and led the NJA three years before Nepali's first parliamentary elections. Bhattarai could not continue with NJA leadership because of his leading role in politics. Nevertheless, the organisation continuously moved on. Nepal entered an age of utterly partisan journalism in the 1960s in the aftermath of the dissolution of first democratically elected government. When King Mahendra snatched basic democratic rights such as freedom of expression and free press, the small weeklies started to operate as counter-propaganda tools by dissenting political forces. If democracy was not nipped in the bud, Nepali journalism would have made big strides professionally. The new autocratic dispensation forced the media outlets to side with one or another political party, resulting in the compromise of fundamental journalistic values such as fairness and objectivity. The NJA, which was later converted into the Federation of Nepali Journalists after 1990, became a battleground for both the government and the outlawed political parties which competed with each other to capture it. Before 1990, it had maintained its position as a common platform for all journalists with diverse political faiths. Thus, the most precious legacy of this organisation is its role in the protection and promotion of press freedom. Even during the Panchayat authoritarian regime, there was polarisation between the professional journalists and the hand-picked propagandist cadres. Some renowned journalists defended the result of the referendum of May 1980 that was in favour of Panchayat throughout their life. But they always denounced the government's attempt to create a favourable organisation of the Nepali journalists. At one point, the Association became the victim of a division backed by the Panchayat government. However, a majority of journalists did not join that organisation. They formed the parallel organisations which effectively accommodated most of the professional journalists. The government created a dummy organisation that survived over the years but eventually it disappeared from the scene. Prior to 1990, there were two national broadcasting institutions, one big publication house with two broadsheets in both Nepali and English language and small budget weeklies in the private sector. The resourceful broadcast media and big dailies were owned by the government but the weeklies suffered acute financial crisis and political suppression. When the socio-political and economic atmosphere became congenial, Nepali media landscape began to reshape itself gradually. It was marked by the vanishing of weeklies that used to indulge in partisan practice. In the new scenario, the Nepali journalists have spared time to focus on the quality of the contents instead of escaping from the police arrest, producing the content in the harsh situation and finding a printing press to publish the paper. The Nepali journalists then started to launch discourse on news values, professional standards, the doctrine of fairness and accountability. That was the time when the common path of the journalists and the political parties was to establish freedom of speech. The new situation has offered a new way of the interplay between the two actors, parties in politics and the journalists for the role of surveillance in the process of governance. The thinking process and working modalities of FNJ would have been compatible with the democratic spirit if new roles given by the democratic polity would have been accepted by both actors - political parties and the journalists. However, it is a great sarcasm that Nepali Congress, a diehard follower of JS Mill's market place of an idea, pioneered in establishing a journalist organisation as a party wing. Since then the politically affiliated journalist organisations have been dead-set to control the FNJ. Consequently, an omnipresent atmosphere has become a reality against the general aspiration of critical outlook, courage and creativeness among the working journalists.
Media system Nepali journalists and political parties need to start homework to create conducive environment as per the need and aspirations of the commoners whom the former address as audience and the latter consider as electorates. Contrary to the expectations of the general public, the political agencies are yet to start serious work on policies for a pluralistic and sustainable media system to empower people. As a democratic polity needs to be complemented and supplemented by pro-people, vibrant, critical and courageous media, all four sectors, namely political parties, journalists, media entrepreneurs and the audience need to be responsible and play their respective roles. It is imperative to evolve a media system where people are empowered with informed choices, and the government and its agencies held accountable. The first and foremost condition for any professional organisation is to be representative of that professional group. It needs to be capable to function as an independent organisation dedicated to the development of the profession, protection of professional rights and aware of the professional values as well as the duties. Hence, the major concerns and quests relating to the FNJ are about enhancing its independence. Because the prerequisite to achieve its objective to protect and promote free speech requires rising above the partisan interests.
(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)