Q&A: Puran Bista: On Opinion Journalism at the Kathmandu Post
The Kathmandu Post's leader page editor PURAN PD. BISTA explains the processes, principles and constraints of managing opinion journalism in Nepal.
In post-April 2006, opinion journalism in Nepal has become incredibly diverse, and it seems that no topic is off limits in newspaper editorial pages and other media formats. The processes of opinion selection and mediation, or the range and balance of topics and points of view, however, have rarely been examined. Opinion journalists, especially the leader page editors, also remain one of the least understood media workers in the country. Against this backdrop, Nepal Monitor features below an interview with Puran Pd. Bista, the leader page editor of the Kathmandu Post, one of the leading English daily newspapers in the country. Bista, 44, is Assistant Editor/Opinion-page editor at the Post. He has worked for the daily for the last 15 years. He holds an M.A. in English and a Masters Diploma in Journalism and Communication. Bista has also attended the Paris-based European Journalists' Program (1996-97). In this interview with NM's Dharma Adhikari, Bista recently explained the processes, principles and constraints of managing the leader page at the Post.
Photo by Nepal Monitor.
Let's start with the latest: Could you explain a recent editorial you ran in the Post, and the editorial views that piece underscores?
We decided to write an editorial on the age-old practice of Kamaiya (January 9, 2008). This is a very simple and yet a serious topic. The government evoked a law banning the practice of bonded labor -- first during King Mahendra's reign in 1963, and again in 2001 when Girija Prasad Koriala headed the coalition government. Yet the practice of Kamaiya continues to exist as a result of apparently an ineffective enforcement of law. And there is no action as such taken against those who have violated the law that would, otherwise, have helped reduce, to a great deal, incidents of hiring and firing young illiterate girls every year. Besides, the state has been unable to provide any alternative means of livelihood to the Kamaiya families. In the editorial we called for the implementation of the law and rehabilitation of the victims. In fact, the practice that existed for centuries cannot be brought to an end overnight. However, the government must find an alternative means to lure such poor and innocent bonded laborers who have suffered in the hands of the feudal-fiats. It is also an outcome of our centuries-old feudal system which continues to push the poor and the excluded communities into the vortex of poverty.
There are so many issues and problems right now in Nepal that compete for editorial space in a newspaper, especially during these transitional times. Could you explain the means and scope of your editorial content, as they relate to the decision-making process--such as formal editorial policies, political bias, news agenda, publishers' influence, editorial board, or informal, one-to-one deliberations with the main editor, etc.?
We editorialize only relevant issues that have wider social, economic and political implications. Of course, the issues that surface during the peace process are of equal importance. But there are also minor issues that demand editorial attention. Besides, hidden political agendas of a certain group within the party may also need to be editorialized. We also editorialize issues which may not be the major stories of the day. The important thing is, the issue to be editorialized should be credible and authentic. For that, we look into the government plans, policies and the way it handles the problems. Political partisanship, vested interests involved in an issue, cost-benefits and the possible outcomes are other aspects that shape our editorial substance.
We know that every news story, in one way or the other, is biased. But for us, what matter the most are our national interests. The Kathmandu Post sometimes tends to be an anti-establishment newspaper, but my impression is that it is not always critical of the establishment. We do spotlight positives, too, and have appreciated the government's constructive moves, plans, policies, etc. towards fulfilling the people's needs. Our publisher has suggested, however, that such positive occasions are not that common.
Editorial independence is important and we do reject the management's influence, in the form of subjective articles, views and even suggestions. Editors cannot stay with the publication any longer when differences arise between the editor and the management. Since its inception, the Kathmandu Post has seen four editors join the publication and later quit it.
Nevertheless, we have been given the freedom to select editorial content and articles for the opinion pages. We have even published letters and articles that were critical of our publications or news organization.
We remain aware of our geopolitics, too. China is very sensitive when we carry any news story on Tibet, but we have not dropped any such story. India is a democratic country, so we think it is more tolerant of diverse viewpoints than other South Asian countries.
It must be a challenging task to manage the editorial pages of the nation's major English daily newspaper, especially during these politically polarizing times. Several disgruntled political and criminal groups continue to intimidate and even attack media houses for their newspapers' perceived bias in news. How does this affect your work as a leader page editor?
Working and managing editorial pages is a collective task. So I always try to ensure that every body working under me participates in the decision processes. I am now used to the routine work so there is no very hard and fast rule as such that keeps my job always at stake. In fact, I enjoy working and reading diverse views and opinions.
Tell us how you landed at the Post. How long have you been managing the editorial pages there?
I was born, brought up and educated in India. But I always remained in touch with my motherland and nurtured a dream of returning to my country. I first visited Kathmandu when I was just 12 year old. The trip impressed me more than any thing else. My parents had long ago left for Northeast India from Taplejung because of abject poverty there. They taught hardships and provided me with a good education. I always longed to know more about Nepal. The restoration of democracy in 1990 provided me an opportunity to return. At that time I had just finished my masters in English. I did not look for any job in India. I came to Kathmandu and joined the Post in November 1992. Now I am happy and consider myself as a fortunate person because I have learnt a lot on Nepal after joining this daily newspaper.
As the editorial and opposite-editorial (op-ed) page editor, you actually run the Post's forum for ideas and thoughts. What do you consider yourself more-- a newsman or a viewsman?
Obviously, I handle the editorial and op-ed pages. That does not mean I am not a reporter. I do report and interact with people from different segments of our society. I love to interact with young and poor people more than the rich ones. I think they are the ones who need help in their efforts at doing what they want to do. So I am a journalist who reports as well as reads views of different people.
Until recently, Nepal's daily newspapers lacked the op-ed page. Now there are several that have that page, with different layouts and designs. What led you to introduce that page? What other changes have you introduced in those pages? Or perhaps, what do you think are the distinguishing features of the Post's forum of ideas (the editorial pages) compared to other newspapers in and outside the country?
I think the Kathmandu Post has provided not only space for the writers but it has also groomed many writers. Five years ago, there were a handful of contributors. We often had to reproduce articles on opinion pages. We hardly had letters to the editor. However, today the Post receives over a dozen articles and several letters a day. Though maintaining two pages-- editorial and op-ed-- is a challenging task, these are attempts at providing space for as many writers or contributors as possible. I am happy that the editorial and the op-ed page of the Post have fairly been able to provide quality content to our readers. For that we are thankful particularly to overseas Nepalis, living in the United States, Canada, the Untied Kingdom and India, who regularly contribute to the newspaper.
What are your major challenges in moderating that forum of ideas? Are they more related to external political/diplomatic pressures, or editorial independence from the publishers, logistical problems, limits in remuneration, or more professional such as lack of good articles/contributors or public feedback?
We receive planted articles and letters that are sent for propaganda, or just to provoke anti-social sentiments. Some writers want to publish articles in an effort to seek jobs or funds for their projects. We call them I/NGOs hunters. Many of them are well-educated, though. They write articles but with a vested interest. The purpose of their articles is to benefit themselves, not to inform, educate or serve the people. They are mere pawns in the hands of foreign agents. We have also received articles from individuals who would want favorable influence from their piece in obtaining their visas. Such articles come from low-graded writers, who may either know us personally or who try to impress us by inviting to dinners or lunches. In such instances, I try to maintain my journalistic ethics of independence than be guided by personal relationship. Some of the writers even try to bribe us for publishing articles. But we do publish articles which demand heavy editing and additional information so as to encourage writers only as and when such articles appear personal efforts at writing and informing readers.
How about individual pressures? It's not uncommon to find blogs out there in which some individuals lament that you don't publish their articles, and don't even respond to their emails. What types of articles (subject and discipline-specific or writing style and genre) have a better chance to get published in your leader pages? Can you provide some guidelines for interested and aspiring authors?
We have cultivated a habit of responding less frequently to our contributors. The reason: We now have a good pool of contributors, who write for us regularly. We try to select articles on the basis of the quality of content: authenticity, credible information, language skills and the length of articles. Most of those who complain, I believe, just want to publish their articles at all cost, though they do not realize their articles may not meet the standards of language, credibility or information, etc. We edit all articles when needed, since we have our own in-house style. This could be a rude shock to some who do not want to see their articles touched by editors. Also, some contributors who rarely write but want to have their articles published do visit us to get their article in print. When we know that such and such contributors write with a vested interest or purpose, then we do reject even the quality articles. Besides, a contributor must disclose his or her identity. Doing so helps, especially if the piece is a controversial one.
In terms of language, we encourage writers to write articles in active voice, short sentences, and with a length between 900--1000 words. The articles must be on current events or issues. Our objective as a daily newspaper is just to inform and educate our readers. Writing, I believe, is a sheer practice. Contributors should not mind if their write-ups are rejected because good articles are rejected on the ground of editorial policies. The daily does not entertain articles that slander or for no reason blame a community or an individual. Our writers must avoid writing views that incite communal or sectarian violence. We give preference to women, minority and prominent social, economic and political leaders.
Journalists routinely complain that there is always the lack of well-researched and well-written articles, especially in the English-medium press. Is this your experience, too? How have things changed over the last decade? Also this: What is your editorial process like in terms of assigning articles, commissioning, syndicating, editing, research and fact-checking, rewriting, authorial verifications, etc.?
I believe daily newspapers are published under deadlines. Journalism, by its very nature, is a job in a hurry. So a daily newspaper may contain mistakes. Otherwise, it may not be a daily newspaper. Yet, we try to minimize the errors.
Contributors do make mistakes as many of them do not rely on proper references while writing articles. Writers, especially columnists, often run short of ideas. Many of them write to meet deadlines. Many of them want to have their bylines in the paper for publicity. Many of them think that what they write is correct and others are wrong. There are several constraints and limitations. We do publish solicited articles, frequently meet good writers and approach them to continue contributing to us. If someone writes a good article, we appreciate and email him or her instantly with a note of appreciation or encouragement to write more.
There is lack of good writers, and our media is deficient in professionalism, more so in English dailies. In fact, the Kathmandu Post has become a spring-board to many journalists -- many good reporters enter I/NGOs even before they complete three years at the Post. Many a times I feel in-house contributors in general are better as writers since they know many current issues thoroughly and it becomes easier to edit their articles. We do verify facts and figures while editing articles though chances of seeking writers' consent for editing are few. We have rewritten contributors' articles. We have granted reproduction permission on the condition that an article credits us as the first or original publisher.
What is the Post's editorial policy on publishing dissenting voices and diversity?
As I have already mentioned, slandering or unsubstantiated articles do not find any space in our daily. The contributors must prove that what they write is true and is backed by facts. Besides, the writer who has become critical of an organization, individual or a country must realize that they too have certain rules or constraints or limitations. So authenticity and credibility of information count while expressing dissenting voices. We do not hesitate to publish dissenting voices or diverse voices provided the articles or views are genuine and benefit the larger section of our society or they are in the country's interests. We do not have any specific editorial policy on publishing dissenting voices and diversity as such.
How about political ideologies or partisan political views? Critics have noted lately that you have become more of a left-of-the-center newspaper in your opinion pages and do not provide enough space to moderate views or the views of the right or monarchists?
I do not think that we have become more of a left-of-the-center newspaper in our opinion pages. For example, I have published Dr. Prakash Chandra Lohani's article (January 22, 2008). He is a diehard royalist and an advocate of active monarchy, and he has claimed that he was asked to be one of the two vice chairmen of the National Council of Ministers, formed by King Gynanendra during his rule. Later, as Lohani says, the king picked up Tulsi Giri instead. Another royalist who frequently contributes to our pages is Prakash A Raj. Of course, Binod Bista, the son of Kriti Nidhi Bista, has stopped writing in our pages. We did run Parshu Ram Kharel's column but the day he filed stories to our rival Nepal Samacharpatra, from Indonesia during the NAM summit, we began to reject his articles. Unfortunately, later he headed Nepal Journalists' Association which supported the February first royal coup. Now he does not write for us though it is not that we discourage him from writing.
I do select articles on the basis of content. There are good royalists who can write but hesitate to contribute articles to us, especially after the April uprising. It is humiliating for them as well. Until April 2006, they were backing the February first coup. Now they find hard to raise their heads. Nevertheless, we will publish articles if they write for us.
What are your policies on readers' participation or feedback? There was a time not long ago that due to the lack of readers' letters, editors at many newspapers and magazines had to write bogus letters to fill in the readers' letters column. Has this changed at all? What is your experience at the Post?
We try to accommodate as many responses as possible. But letters or articles should be genuine and must disclose the writer's identity. We did cookup letters; that used to be until about five years ago. But we always chose issues which were of public concern such as hospitals, potholes on streets, drinking water, shortages of essential commodities etc. For the last five years, as you can read, the Post carries genuine letters. Some of them regularly contribute to our daily. We do receive more than 20 letters a day but some are, again, planted letters. We always avoid such planted letters emailed to us for propaganda. There are several forces operating in this country. They just make attempts to confuse our readers by sending bogus letters or even articles with specific purpose. We have to be very careful while selecting letters and articles.
The quality of content or accuracy still seems to be a matter of concern for many newspapers that lack the simple mechanism of fact-checking and verification. I would think that such newspapers would do better if they hired an ombudsman or a public (readers') editor. But the idea of an ombudsman, who is also a component of the leaders' page, is generally not received well by newspaper editors and publishers anywhere in the world. Would you like to share your personal observations on this, and perhaps relate it to the needs, if any, of the Kathmandu Post?
Yes, we do think that an ombudsman is very essential. We did not have copy editors some three years ago. Everything was done by reporters or subeditors. Now we have senior journalists hired as copy editors or rewrite-men. It is very hard to find a senior journalist who can work as copy editor as our publication house, I suppose, is financially not in a position to hire such an ombudsman. The question is how many people read the Post? Besides, advertisement is the lifeblood of a newspaper. So, many prefer Kantipur to the Post for advertisement though ad space in the former is comparatively very expensive. I think we are not quite there yet in our development to demand an ombudsman or may be many of us are unaware of the need for that.
Unlike a star reporter or the main editor, the leader page editor works behind the scene and his/her work remains little understood. What prevailing views do you perceive inside your own newsroom or in your editorial hierarchies and the world outside regarding the role of a leader page editor and his impact? Do you feel the works of editorial page editors have been adequately appreciated in our society?
Editorial page editors too can expose themselves to outside world but they have to read or write opinionated articles and meet people frequently. The best part of being an opinion page editor is that he or she is always in touch with educated people. They know us more than they would know any reporter. We must be convinced that educated people or intellectuals, who write regularly, have directly been influencing the society, perhaps more than politicians or social workers. Opinion-page editors, I think, read diverse views and are well-informed. I do not think editorial-page leaders need to be appreciated in our society. They have been appreciated by the educated group. I enjoy the freedom of being an editorial-page editor and opportunity to listen to many voices. I enjoy it because it is a means to sharing knowledge and I get to hear from every one of my colleagues. Besides, I also get to mingle with them.
Can you explain the nature of your contacts with your counterparts at other newspapers? Do they share similar experiences? Don't you think there is a need for a common forum for leader page editors in the country so they can discuss their problems to collectively resolve them?
We do interact with other reporters, opinion page editors and senior journalists though there is no common forum where we can frequently meet and share our knowledge. I wish we had a press club in this country. And it is shameful to tell foreign journalists that we do not have a press club in Nepal. But Kathmandu is a small city. Every one knows who is where. That makes it easy to keep in touch with one another, discuss personal matters and working environment, pay and perks, etc.
You also teach journalism at some academic institutions in Kathmandu. How has teaching helped you to explain your editorial work better to the new generation Nepalis?
Teaching is my passion and not a profession. I started teaching at the age of 17. It does affect my profession as I find less time to read newspapers. And I have to prepare lessons. However, teaching I suppose, benefits both the students and the teacher. I know students' interests and they directly benefit from our experience. I think a working journalist or a person with practical journalism experience can be a better teacher of journalism than a teacher who does not have such experience.
Do you provide any internship opportunities at the Post to your journalism students or those from other institutions of journalism education? What is your assessment of their productivity in meeting your needs?
We do provide space for students of journalism but they must have the knack in news reporting and be able to demonstrate that they are keen in the profession. Taking courses in journalism alone will not ensure any space at the Post. We conduct written exams before letting them join as interns. Some of those who have joined this newspaper after/before completing the course in journalism have gained or demonstrated their skills in writing, editing and reporting. Many students have joined this daily after completing their courses in journalism. Some of them have shone as journalists in our society.
Before I wrap up with one more question, how do you view the future of Nepali journalism, in terms of growth, professionalism, and other challenges?
I see better prospects and I am sure that in a decade Nepal will have competent and better journalists than what we now have.
Finally, a personal question: Was journalism always your childhood dream or an adult discovery, or is it a newfound inspiration?
I just wanted to do management. But my parents could not afford it as I had to make several field visits so it became a bit expensive to do management. I chose English literature which was an easier path to getting a job. But when I planned to return to Nepal, I felt that doing journalism and working in a newspaper would provide me an opportunity to know Nepal better. So I did Mass Communication and Journalism before I returned to Nepal.
Posted by Editor on February 10, 2008 3:42 PM