Two recent events have turned Nepali newsmen into news. The first is the admission by the royal cabinet's minister for information Tanka Dhakal that he distributed money to journalists "to prolong the royal government". The second concerns Online Media Association Nepal (OMAN)'s demand that online media be given the same recognition as traditional print and electronic media by the Media Council. Even if you shrug off the strange influence of the council long after the demise of its parent, the royal government, these items make it difficult to understand the progress that the business of Nepali journalism has made.
Royal largesse: Thomas Jefferson famously said that he preferred newspapers without a government to a government without newspapers. But Nepali readers have never had such a luxury. For their survival, our media bodies have historically relied on getting handouts from the government to dodge the forces of the market.
As recently as October 2004, then communications minister Mohammed Mohsin unveiled an 11-point media policy-which boiled down to throwing millions of rupees of public money at media bodies and private media houses. Tara Nath Dahal, chairman of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) put out a statement saying that "more need(ed) to be done for journalists' welfare by the government". Another beneficiary, Kantipur Publications, even ran an editorial in Kantipur thanking Mohsin for his generosity.
Against that backdrop, wasn't Dhakal merely continuing the royal and non-royal tradition of maintaining the patron-client relationship between the fourth estate and the government? If so, why is only he being slammed?
As a minister, Dhakal alienated the all-powerful FNJ, whose members are now returning the favour in full force. Besides, so long as the spotlight of villainy highlights only Dhakal, media bodies need not verify, much less report, which journalists (read: friends and peers) were on the royal regime's payroll. Or else, two weeks payment-for-favourable-news story aside, why is it that the public still has not seen the names of all the journalists who profited from that 80 lakh-rupee slush fund?
Online media: OMAN's demand makes you wonder why it even needs the government's blessings. Thanks to the falling costs of technology and content-distribution, journalism, to paraphrase Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit.com, is becoming less of a profession and more of an activity that citizens do on the side (one example: yours truly).
Mainstream global media outlets already allow citizen-journalists to contribute views and shape the news. Moreover, analysts say that the broadcast model of TV, radio and newspapers-where the centre edits the news that peripheries receive-is under assault. The ease of the internet has made consumers bypass relatively costly intermediaries like newspapers and go straight to the aggregators of information such as blogs, web forums, podcasts and Google. Not surprisingly, a large chunk of the ad business has migrated to cyberspace too.
In this changing context, OMAN's demand is akin to computer programmers asking to be members of the All Nepal Typists' Association. It's one thing to ask for relevant ID papers to attend government press conferences. But when just about anyone can be a journalist online, it's foolish to think that those who post on the web should form their own society and then ask the government for special privileges. This is the sort of traditional thinking that goes against the very ethos of online journalism: sceptical of authorities, inclusive and accessible to all.