Monday, March 10, 2014

An Attempted Assassination of a Journalist: Rethinking Periodization in Nepali Journalism Historiography

Harsha Man Maharjan

INTRODUCTION 
This chapter demonstrates the limitations in existing schemes of periodization in Nepali journalism historiography that are based mainly on political-constitutional changes. These schemes take regime changes (Poudyal 2027 v.s.; Devkota 2033 v.s.; Nepal 2055 v.s.; Dahal 2070 v.s.; Pokharel 1994; Regmi and Kharel 2002) and new constitutional provisions (Acharya 2070 v.s.; Onta 2001, 2002) as triggers which set significant alternations in organization and practices of journalism in Nepal. While some of the organizational changes in media were shaped by these external factors, existing literature lacks concrete evidence relating these factors to the changes in everyday journalistic practices. The essay examines genealogies of the specific orientation of the journalists and of their characterization of the powerful across the sharp regime changes of the 1990s. It shows that professional journalism that conventional historiography sees as the effect of the 1990 Constitution was very much prevalent before 1990. It argues for a periodization based on characteristic changes in the internal aspects of journalistic practice. It will complement existing schemes based on contextual factors and will help build a more balanced journalism historiography of Nepal.

The object of analysis in this chapter is journalistic practice. By journalistic practice, I mean the orientation of journalists towards the powerful (watchdog or lapdog role of journalism), and the context and process of its making. I will discuss Nepali journalistic practice around the attempted assassination of a journalist, Padam Thakurathi, in 1986. I will use the event as a lens to view the complex field of journalism in the years leading to the changes after 1990. I demonstrate that Thakurathi and his team practiced what could be termed professional conduct.

The existing historiography puts the professionalization in the post-1990 Nepal as a major question to explain. It then attributes these changes to certain politico-legal innovations brought by the 1990 Constitution. These innovations are an explicit guarantee to the freedom of the press and right to information as well as the enactment of new media policies. For example, one narrative claims the post-1990 period as the ‘age of professionalism’ (Nepal 2055 v.s.). Another does so by enumerating broadsheet dailies started during the period, and hinting at the rise of the big media houses (Acharya 2070 v.s.).

There are, however, conceptual problems with the ideologically-loaded term professionalism (Waisbord 2013). As used for the broader cultural circumstances of American journalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, scholars have interpreted the idea of professionalization as a “publicly-appealing norm to protect them [journalists] from criticism, embarrassment, or lawsuits” (Shudson 2001: 165). Objectivity, fairness and public services are the main ideals of professional journalism but these ideals are constantly re-negotiated in the changing reach of the state, market and bureaucracy (Waisbord 2013). It means that objectivity, factual presentation of news, is weak in everyday journalistic practice, more so in non-western societies. Some scholars have therefore proposed to delink objectivity from professionalism and accepted autonomy, discrete norms and an orientation to public service as characteristics of the professionalization (Hallin and Mancini 2004; Schudson and Anderson 2009). This ‘trait perspective’ on professionalism is crucial to trace the continuity of journalistic practice across the 1990 changes.

Note: This is the introduction from my article published in an edited volume, Ruptures and Repairs in South Asia: Historical Perspectives, edited by Yogesh Raj and published by Martin Chautari. Please see this link for more information about the book: 

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