20 years ago this week
The #1 print edition of Nepali Times of 19-25 July 2000 shows that even though much has changed in Nepal in the past two decades, a lot has remained the same. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. Reports and op-eds published in that very first hardcopy issue are as relevant today as they were then. Most of the protagonists are the same.
The front page analysis of the first edition looked at the impending state visit to India by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. Among the contentious issues he was going to take up with Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee: the Kalapani territory occupied by India. The dispute flared again this year, and sank bilateral ties to a new low.
Then, as now, the Indian media had been primed before Koirala’s visit with official leaks about alleged infiltration by Pakistani agents to ‘turn the Tarai into Taliban territory’. The allegations were included in an Indian intelligence report ‘Nepal Gameplan’, and our report said that Koirala’s challenge would be to use his personal chemistry with Vajpayee to convince him that Nepal would not allow any extraneous threats to India from its territory.
Both Koirala and Vajpayee are long gone, but India-Nepal relations are still strained —this time over suspicions of growing Chinese influence. The same issue of Nepali Times had an interview with UML General Secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal on page 3 in which the opposition leader said: “What is surprising is that Koirala is the same person who said he would not visit India until Indian troops are withdrawn from Kalapani, and he is rushing there.”
The Editorial of the first print edition of Nepali Times laid out what would be the new paper’s mission statement: ‘A newspaper does more than hold a mirror to society. It becomes a mirror itself. There is a belief that literature is generally not read, and journalism is often unreadable. This newspaper will seek to be informal, lively, clear and direct.’
In his column ‘State of the State’, C K Lal lamented the cynicism in Nepali society: ‘Despair hangs as thick as diesel exhaust in the Kathmandu air. Nepal’s nabobs of negativism hold forth in their nay-saying nooks. Cynicism is at least a reflection of exaggerated self-worth. Despair is much worse, it is a state of having lost all hope.’ Locked down for four months, Nepalis are once more drifting from cynicism to despair.
The first issue also included an investigation into a scandal at the Kathmandu office of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) in which an expat official was secretly sacked for embezzlement. Reporter Hemlata Rai wrote about how grassroots democracy was beginning to deliver health, education and other services.
Another intriguing story was about reports that underground Maoist leader Prachanda had visited UK on an Indian passport to attend a meeting of the Revolutionary International Movement (RIM). Water resources expert Dipak Gyawali argued in a commentary that it made more sense for private power producers in Nepal to design projects to sell electricity for domestic value-added use than exporting it to India.
COVID-19 is the main global health issue today, but 20 years ago it was HIV/AIDS, and the paper carried a report on anti-retrovirals not being affordable to people in poor countries.
Manjushree Thapa started her column Nepaliterature in which she profiled writers in the Nepali language with translated excerpts of their work. The July 2000 issue had these lines from Bimal Nibha:
Comrade Baburam Bhattarai is busy leading the People’s War
I, dragging along my broken slippers
Am wondering —as are many others
I’m an ordinary person who writes the news who writes poems
Who drinks tea and rushes off
A worker who delights and weeps
With ardor and effort
(nothing exceptional about me)
Am I not also engaged in a people’s war, Comrade?
Nepali Times also got rights to serialise chapters from Desmond Doig’s book In the Kingdom of the Gods, and the first installment carried his description of Jang Bahadur’s Mughal-style Kal Mochan temple, which a western visitor once said was ‘too ugly to describe’.
The Funny Side Up satire column became a fixture on the back page with the first one on legalising corruption. Taxing bribes and slapping 13% VAT on baksheesh, it was suggested, would be a good way to raise government revenue.
From this week, the ‘10 Year Ago’ column in Nepali Times will be ‘20 Years Ago’. It will look at Nepal from two decades ago, and how the country was getting mired deeper in conflict, political disarray was eroding democratic gains, tourism was being affected by the uncertainty.
The COVID-19 lockdown is a fitting time for a retrospective – when the media itself is facing a crisis of survival. The media in Nepal has historically been threatened by the extreme right and the extreme left. It had survived the economic crises during the earthquake and Blockade. Legacy media was trying to cope with the digital transition. But never has it had to face such an existential crisis. There are serious implications for journalism as well as for an open society.
As the past two decades show, journalism is indeed history in a hurry. And those who do not learn from it are doomed to repeat it.