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Q&A: Yubaraj Ghimire: Doing pro-Victim Journalism

YUBARAJ GHIMIRE, the editor of Samay and Newsfront, a new English newsweekly in Kathmandu, discusses contemporary Nepali journalism.

Yubaraj Ghimire, 49, is among the few Nepali news professionals who honed their journalistic skills abroad and eventually returned home to practice the craft. The editor of the popular Samay newsweekly recently launched Newsfront, a colorful English news tabloid. In this interview with Nepal Monitor's Dharma Adhikari, he discusses many important aspects of contemporary Nepali journalism as well as his personal roots.

Photo courtesy of Newsfront.

Tell us how and why you decided to launch Newsfront? Is there a market for another news-oriented publication in Nepal?
It was the product of a collective anxiety and enthusiasm on the part of journalists working for Samay magazine. We were (and are) confident that we have potential and energy to do something more—may be at a smaller scale-- together, apart from bringing out Samay. So we just decided to raise loan, and with the consent of the Samay management, we began publishing Newsfront. We are very clear that we did not start it just because we wanted to be a publisher. Eventually, it's going to belong to Bhrikuti publication (publisher of Samay) only.

Although our decision to begin Newsfront was not based on a proper market survey, we have gone through the existing products, and we realized there is enough space for us as well. I think the response we are getting has proved us right.

How would you describe the performance of Samay, your Nepali-language weekly newsmagazine in terms of readership as well as the journalistic values it espouses? How is it different from other similar publications, such as Himal and Nepal?
Samay has performed well, and I am happy to say it has played the most significant role a media should be playing at the time of crisis. It was the first magazine in Nepal to defy the censorship imposed through Feb 1, 2005 royal proclamation. Our collective decision was not to leave the space blank as a symbolic disapproval of what the king did. We were ready to pay the price if our commitment or value demanded it in doing what we did. You may recall Nepali media responded to the royal takeover in different ways. Government media and their allies in the private sector supported them. Big newspapers including Kantipur group were so terrorized that their first critical editorial came only three weeks later.

A large section of the media, mostly weeklies and other periodicals, kept their editorial and opinion spaces blank, partially or fully, as a symbolic protest. Samay was the only one which not only gave all the international reaction to the king's move, it also gave space to political opinion, something the royal proclamation had banned. Yes, we had to face internal problem. But except the chairman of the board (Bharat Basnet) all other members were with us. And Basnet ultimately quit.

Its readership is on the increase. I leave it to the readers to judge how different or similar it is from other publications. All that I can say is that we stand for certain values and we have not made, and we will not make any compromise on that. We will always champion the values that democracy is all about. And secondly, we will always remain pro-victim.

What does doing "pro-victim" journalism entail in your case and in Nepal in general, since shouldn't all journalisms, in essence, be pro-victim?
For example, When YCL [Young Communist League, a Maoist youth group] arrested, abducted and took Sitaram Prasai, a controversial banker, into a wrongful custody for 24 hours before handing over to the people, some supported the YCL move while others were indifferent. When the king's regime appointed the Royal Commission on corruption which expressly intended to persecute political rivals, all the media except Samay were silent. The Rayamajhi commission had a political composition with representatives from the Nepali Congress (NC) and Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Lenist (UML) as members. The commission acted as a tool in the hands of the executive by allowing the government to suspend some senior police officials, at least one of them not at all connected with any kind of operation during the people's movement. And the media sided with the government. Given the political bias of the nepali media, they have not always been able to be fair, objective and pro-victim.

Why the need or an interest in doing Nepali and English language journalism at the same time?
Because we need to tell the truth in as many languages and ways possible. There is, however, a personal side to it as well. I spent nearly 16 years as a journalist (English medium) beginning in 1983, mostly in India. I did not want to waste the skill and experience I gained. But at the same time, I also wanted to communicate directly with the masses, and that's possible only if I work for a Nepali magazine. We will ensure that Samay and Newsfront remain true platforms for opinion of the cross section of the society. We will not deny space to opinion of certain people just because we do not agree with them. These two products would not practice "untouchability" in any form.

Now let's look at the bigger picture: How do you look at the development of media, particularly the news business, in recent times in Nepal? What are the noteworthy gains and the challenges?
There are certain encouraging signs, definitely. From 1991 till now, the media are becoming more and more professional, although far less than the desired degree. But they played a crucial role in the movement for democracy. But there are still much bigger challenges. As I see it , they include: how to address the problem of 'yellowness' and 'blackmail journalism', how to do journalism in the face of organized terror against the media and how to stand up to the corporate control, not to mention of state's intolerance towards the free media.

You worked in the Indian press (Outlook magazine) for quite some time. How is your experience today in Nepali journalism different or similar from your experience in India?
I have worked with United News of India, the Telegraph, India Today, Outlook and with Indian Express. That was a great learning and working experience.

Nepali journalism is still in formative or early evolutionary phase of professionalism. Lack of overall security, including financial, comes in the way of getting talents in the profession. But there are far greater opportunities before the Nepali media. For instance, you may recall Indian politician Lalkrishna Advani's famous gibe at journalists after his release from jail during Indira Gandhi's emergency rule— she wanted them to bend, but they crawled. But we did not crawl, although we did certainly bend in a similar situation in Nepal.

You also served as the editor of daily Kantipur for a while. What was the reason for you to suddenly quit the daily press and refocus on weekly journalism?
To be very precise, I worked for Kantipur for 3 and half years beginning July 2000. I was editor for the Kathmandu Post as well as Kantipur during the last 15 months before I quit. But let me make it clear here that I did not quit with some alternative in mind. It just happened six months after I had quit Kantipur, some people approached me if I would like to start some media with them. In that kind of budget only thing that was possible was a magazine. That's what we are doing. I had no intention of going back abroad, although I very much miss eventful India and the challenges associated with journalism there. That's why I occasionally write for Indian Express even now. I do not want to altogether disappear from a place where I have spent substantial part of my active life and formative years.

Yes, I quit Kantipur Group after both the Post and Kantipur published a highly exaggerated profile of one Rakshendra Bhattarai projecting him as one of the richest persons in the world, and a friend of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton. As events unfolded, it became very clear to me that the story was planned keeping the editor (me) out of the news decision process. I was informed about the content of the story by its author (Prateek Pradhan, then Sr Asst Editor and now the Post's editor) late in the evening. He said he had done full research on the subject and every thing he wrote was correct. I had to take him on his words.

But I faced another dilemma as well. I had stopped a similar story on Bhattarai from being published in Kantipur a week ago. I had asked the correspondent concerned (Sanjay Neupane) that it needed more research on the person. But since the Post was now going to carry the story, there was no point in my not allowing that in Kantipur. I went to Narayan Wagle, Kantipur's Sr Asst. Editor. Interestingly he was also editing the same story.

I put in my papers the next day as simple queries that I made revealed the person written about was not what Kantipur, the Kathmandu Post and its Television (an outfit I had no association with) had projected him to be. . In fact, he was a swindler. I am giving these details as this is an important incident on how corporate interests are dictated through the media.

In fact, you are also a publisher now, besides being the editor of both of your publications. What led you to take this additional leadership role? What are the trade-offs between donning both hats?
I have already said I have no desire to be a publisher. I was trained as a reporter and I continue to be that. This is just a technical matter. And Newsfront, like Samay, will soon belong to Bhrikuti Publication. No trade off absolutely. Bhrikuti promoters, despite their intention to start an Englsih weekly, had not been able to implement their decision. I, along with my colleagues, were getting restive that we were wasting time and potential. So with the consent of the promoters, we just started it.

How do you define professionalism in journalism? What are its key features in the Nepali context?
A combination of balance, accuracy and courage. In Nepal's context, it certainly has to be the promotion of democratic values as well as taking a pro-victim attitude. But what is coming as a blighter to Nepali journalism is overdose of partisan politics and practice of "untouchability" depending on which side of politics you are in. But Nepali journalists also have to ask this: Is the freedom they exercise absolute and absolutely without any accountability?

How do you describe the nature of relationship between the government and the press in Nepal today? Do you agree that the Nepali press is loosing neutrality and has become too adversarial in covering government?
There is no one word that can define this relationship. It's hostile, it's servile and in some cases, it's also professional, depending on the affiliation of the media concerned and the political composition of the government.

What do you think should be the role of journalism in contemporary Nepali politics? More specifically, its role in the current peace process? Are you satisfied with the way the news media are doing their part?
There are certain cardinal principles that journalism cannot ignore anywhere. But in our context, I think media need to play a more effective role in consolidation of democracy and strengthening institutions. Unfortunately, Nepali media, like politicians were guided more by euphoria—to some extent still are—after the last year's political change. They supported an absolute Prime Minister replacing an absolute king, they supported when the principle of separation of power came under attack, and most of them totally chose to ignore the fact that monopoly of power by eight parties was going to start a dangerous trend in Nepal's politics. All this would suggest I am not satisfied with how the media are doing (or not doing) their part.

Similar is the case with the peace process. The news media are not warning the Maoists and the prime Minister enough for not acting as per the agreements they signed in the past. Those who signed the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the code of conduct have not been eager to form the necessary instruments to monitor their fulfillment as pledged.

How about public-press relationship? Don't you think the news media face a crisis of public credibility? What do you think the media should do to be more accountable to the people?
Yes, media face a crisis of public credibility. My one prescription is: we need to have an effective and powerful press council, and clearly defined defamation laws besides quick trial of such cases, say, by special courts. What will be more important in a democracy than the dignity of an individual citizen? Of course, the aggrieved side can always appeal in the supreme court. This is something the Federation of Nepali Journalists, Press Council and the editors bodies should take up. And in our context, we also need to define who is a journalist. We have more than 5000 journalists holding government's accreditation cards, an unusually high number. In our first step to redeem public credibility, we must first be clear who are journalists.

There is obviously an imbalance in the coverage of topics and issues in the Nepali press (diversity, international affairs, religion/science, etc). What are your main considerations in making news decisions at your publications?
I agree with the first part. My considerations are: topicality and their relevance in terms of immediate development and long-term impact. We also give importance to Karnali and ethnic issues, etc. We give space to regional issues-- South Asia and Asia— but certainly go beyond this region when they are of interest for Nepal and Nepalis. For instance, there is a lot of interest on the upcoming US presidential election. But covering science is a difficult thing mainly because of the absence of experts writing in Nepali.

Partisanship and parochialism— certainly not the ideals of any democracy-- may still characterize professions in Nepal. In this context, how do you describe the relationship among journalists of various institutions and backgrounds in the country?
Yes, certainly partisanship and parochialism are not the ideals of any democracy. But when we relate these traits with journalism in Nepal, there are basically two reasons for this. What is still called the mainstream journalism remains more of an urban and capital centric phenomenon. Secondly, as there is no financial security, pursuing journalism as a vocation in an inclusive manner appears difficult. But the scene is gradually changing.

As journalists are still divided politically, this has affected the relationship among journalists of various institutions and backgrounds. Unfortunately, we still do not have something like a press club where journalists belonging to different institutions can sit together and discuss our mutual problems. In my seven years as a journalist in Nepal, I have never seen one occasion where different organizations of editors/journalists have sat together and discussed on issues that have bearing on our profession, freedom, accountability and democracy.

What is your view on journalism education in Nepal today? Traditionally, work experience alone was considered enough to become a journalist. What is the current perception and trend in the field?
Now more and more students or prospective journalists are pursuing media studies. But not all of them end up becoming journalists. They move to the greener pastures. The market is too small to absorb them. And the job offers no financial security. But having people who know the basics of journalism will obviously enrich the profession. But this is a profession where one does not learn every thing from the text books. Therefore, my one opinion is you can not be very rigid about who should and could be a journalist.

At one time, journalism in Nepal was viewed as a less-desirable profession. Has this perception changed among the prospective new generation journalists? If so, how and why?
It is, and perhaps will remain so for some more years to come. But there are some hopeful signs because brighter students are pursuing mass communication and journalism studies in the college. However, they need financial security guarantees. Also, media should develop as a more dignified profession. That's a challenge for the current leaders in the profession.

Finally, a personal question: How did you end up being a journalist? Was it always your first vocational choice? Any sources of inspiration?
Being a journalist was not something that I could have considered as my aim in life as a village boy in Chitwan where I migrated with my parents from Lamjung. I wanted to be a medical doctor after doing my I. Sc for which I tried a lot in India and but could achieve that goal. It was at this stage that I decided to pursue my degree in Sociology and become a journalist.

I come from a simple village background. My father Krishna Prasad Ghimire, a farmer, who died in 1983, and my mother Janaki Ghimire, now in her early 80s, always encouraged me to work hard, take up any challenge coming in the way and always maintain the link with my roots.

They left it to me to decide what I wanted to pursue as a vocation after I failed to get into a medical college and were quite happy when I said I wanted to be a journalist.

M J Akbar has always remained an inspiration for me. C K Arora (now lives in the U S and works for VOA) and D N Jha-- both with United News of India when I joined the organization as a trainee, helped me a lot to stick to the profession and love it

Posted by Editor on August 5, 2007 10:10 PM