Kathmandu, Janakpur, Birgunj, Charikot, Nepal.
New Delhi, Agra, Chitrakoot, Dharamshala, India.
“Media does not just hold up a mirror to society. It is the mirror.” –Kunda Dixit, journalist and editor of Nepali Times, in A People War: Images of the Nepali Conflict 1996-2006
“There are [so many topics] covered in big newspapers. They are not doing the work of communication. They are reporting what is happening, wha is news. Small papers, in addition to reporting, are communicating. -Ashok Gupta, founder and editor of The Mayur Infomail, a fortnightly community newspaper in Delhi, India
“Americans do not realize that the whole world is watching them.” –journalists at International Federation of Journalists, South Asia conference, in conversation
“The ones who write in the vernacular media [in India] are the ones who are often the most affected locally. And so they become a danger, they pose a real threat, to politicians in that region because they have that kind of grassroots support and connections… It’s the various regional channels that are the most influential locally.” –Indian journalist Sujata Madhok, in conversation
Local: adjective: relating or restricted to a particular area or one’s neighborhood; relating to a particular region or part, or to each of any number of these.
Grassroots: noun: the most basic level of an activity or organization; ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization’s membership.
The following is a mix of things- part reflection, as my time in Nepal is now closed, (this is dreadfully late and has long been in the works amidst day to day work and interviews, as I’ve been piecing together research and interviews and anecdotes and my own thoughts). It is part ramble on Nepali media and questions about journalism in general, mixed with some of my favorite anecdotes, moments, quotes and sights from the past three months.
Hey hey, hello everyone, and greetings from India, the second country stop on my Watson year! I’ve spent the majority of the last three weeks in New Delhi, where it’s hovering around the beginnings of a crispy winter and the city is emerging from a period of particularly intense smog levels- but am coming to you live from Dharamshala, a village in the mountains about twelve hours north of the capital by bus. I’ve come here to do some catch up on my blog and projects in the works, and to breathe (literally and figuratively) for a few days. Dharamshala is quiet, nestled beneath forested and then stony peaks of the Dhauladhar mountain range. It is also the residence of the Tibetan government, called the Central Tibetan Administration, in exile and a significant population of Tibetans. Of course, then, it is also the residence of his holiness the Dalai Lama, whom coincidentally drove by a coffee shop I was in, waving in the front seat of his car, in a grouping of four vehicles on his way back from talks about China. People stood in scattered groups on the road when the sirens began to sound, marking his arrival, watching the blind corners for his passage back home. Eyes up, searching for his face in the front seat, those of us gathered looked into the front seat and later, compared shots which mostly captured black glass; in a video clip, you can see the Lama’s hand, moving from side to side.
“It always feels different when he is here,” said one woman, who lives on-and-off in Dharamshala during the year. She wanted to hold a white scarf, forming an arc, out towards his passing car instead of her phone. “You can feel it when he comes back, the magic.”
You can strategize angles for making eye contact and, adjust lenses to zero in on a subject behind glass, but there are some moments that can’t dance with preparation. Documentation requires both consistency and quick attention to the present; but at times, it is a diversion from actually being present. I notice and sometimes resent this feeling when I am in a new place, somewhere or some moment where I might not ever return.
Telling a story or taking an image as a momentary visitor is fleeting. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it (I do it all the time, though I’ve been taking less photos than I did at the beginning) or that it is not valuable (seeing new things and new places is always valuable), or that I think it shouldn’t be done (it’s an essential and fun thing to do), but it comes back to the question of capturing a place as an incomer and the value of doing so; whether it is images or words or feelings that evoke recognition.
This leads me to an important moment of realization of my own interests and intended plan for this year: I believe spending significant time is important, and hope to tell and study the kind of stories that necessitate living and really being in a place, rather than being in many places. I came into Nepal thinking that I’d spend a month and a half; I left after three months. Of course, this can’t happen everywhere I planned to go so I am thinking accordingly and trying to keep the big picture in mind, easy as it is to fall in love with places and stay, comfortable in that feeling of still growing in the slightly less than unfamiliar.
Kathmandu was home base for three months and a place in which I spent time meeting with many different types of journalists, as a means of trying to figure out what interested me the most. Here, I’ve planned out time here with much more consistent movement and longer periods of time focused with organizations and journalists, as opposed to meeting with a wide range of storytellers.
That said, news analysis projects and pieces are underway here in India (but I’ll save that for another post) about a mix of different types of media- including a digital journalism training for Khabar Lahariya reporters, oral histories with journalists working at a community radio station, Alfaz-e-Mewat, in a village in Haryana, an exploration of how Tibet-oriented publications based out of Dharamshala are covering both news in Tibet and communities within India, and an analysis of the gender-byline breakdown of five major print newspapers in India over the course of two months. Otherwise, I’ve been meeting with grassroots storytellers, including folks with the Delhi community newspaper the Mayur Infomail, Youth Ki Awaaz, Dalit Camera, Voice of Tibet, Radio Free Asia, and the World Comics Network… The scope of media organizations are truly mind boggling and vast- an honest reflection of India, the world’s largest democracy, itself- making this a fascinating place to kick off the second leg of this year.
In short, this I hope: to continue to grow and seek to always do better by taking lots of time, with stories and in the countries I visit, and to do less rather than feeling pressured to cover a wide breadth. Personally and professionally, this is something I’m holding tight as an important goal for self-improvement.
In college, I chose to study history because I loved the flexibility of the discipline; I like to say yes to everything, but this year is also a lesson in hard truths and limits. In India, I’m refocusing my definition of “local journalism” to more closely align with what might be understood as “grassroots.” Reflecting on Nepal, I realize that the time I spent with community radio journalists and organizations, most of which were not published in English, were the moments at which I learned the most. My hope is to spend time close to the sources of stories that have faded from the front page after their shock value runs up, if they were ever acknowledged widely there at all. I’m seeking to stray away from TV news and more solely towards digital and radio-based mediums that center peoples’ voices directly. There are so many questions to bring into question when it comes to media, particularly now- and with all that in mind, these focuses continue to shift as the issues and places around me do, too.
In getting to know a place, journalists are a beautiful source of guidance to travel by, noses ears to the ground, brains full of names; with each meeting, I continue to be awed in talking to journalists about what they do and the decisions, and sometimes sacrifices, made to keep them on the path of this work. These journeys into the profession are individual, but I think that are also more parallels in journalistic conditions across the world than differences. The same problems, the same questions of integrity and censorship, of fake news and seeking stories within urban bubbles; they all arise, even when it’s not possible to gauge the similarities from afar.
From above, Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley has buildings that stretch to the feet of its hills. The distinction between hills and mountains is important because of the jump between those that exist within the country’s boundaries- hills are the ones that rise up like dark, shaded pencil lines around Kathmandu, while mountains tower and peak out with whitened heads in the North. Mountains are only considered such if snow is involved.
At its borders, Nepal’s land rises to over 8,500 meters and descends to 200 meters above sea level. Rivers older than the mountains flow between them with their beginnings in the North before flowing long and swiftly south. Two of the largest rivers, the Karnali and the Trisuli, begin in Tibet and extend through Nepal’s plain “Terai” region into India. Along the course of rivers, Nepal is packed with such a range of landscapes; a couple of times, I fell asleep on a bus heading out of the Kathmandu Valley, past the terraced farm lands on roads that would sometimes fling me fully out of my seat when we hit big potholes; then, waking up, we’d be rolling swiftly down a smooth road, where rickshaw bikes replaced tempo buses, where the land did not slope and long stretches of rice grew next to the road.
As of 2016, approximately 28.98 million people live in Nepal. Within that population, approximately 1.3 million live in Kathmandu. The city itself, built over a rich valley that once took King Narayan Shah five years to slowly conquer in the 1700s, is home to people from throughout the country (and, of course, the world… the expat and foreign worker population in Kathmandu is very large and seems to be growing). Nepal is rich with a mix of people and geographies, religions and debates that have grown tense and loosened their hold over time. That said, I’ve left with many more questions and curiosities than I came with and stories that I know I need much more time to understand and flesh out. In three months, you can learn a good amount about and briefly live in a place, but that tenure is limited. I feel very lucky to have had the chance to absorb how journalism functions in a place like Nepal over the course of a few months, and not participate so much as work peripherally.
Stepping back and watching reporting unfold from the perspective of someone observing as a “shadow”, and in many cases, listening to interviews in another language, is an experiment in and of itself. This project is a continual work in progress and product of learning-on-the-go from the journalists who have very generously helped me along the way and made all of this learning possible. Looking back on my time in Nepal, a lot of what I did was learning about a wide variety of perspectives in Nepali media. I focused less explicitly on the original plan articulated in my project statement to study grassroots media (which is very different from local journalism)- and instead did extensive interviews and spent lengths of time with folks who have done a wide range of things in media. I did accompany and work alongside journalists who work at the grassroots and a community radio organization which is adapting to a new type of listener, but I also learned about the big media, about TV, about weekly newspapers and long form writing in Nepal. This exposed me first hand to understanding the power dynamics at work in Nepali media, and about the kind of stories are being produced and fed to the largest concentration of decision makers in the country.
Palpasa Café is a novel about the People’s War, or the ten year-long Maoist insurgency that resulted in thousands of death across Nepal and horrific violence between the army and the rebels, and civilians across the country caught in between. Former Kantipur editor Narayan Wagle traveled extensively during the War and wrote Palpasa as a fictional reflection of it, to capture the things that couldn’t be put into words, the feeling of that time that journalistic reporting couldn’t always convey.
After reading his book, I had the chance to speak with Wagle about his work. This quote of his, about heading Nepal’s largest newspaper during the war, has continued to stick with me.
“Kantipur’s approach [to covering the War] was a bit different. It was the largest newspaper and so with that duty we were lucky that we had good spirited journalists reporting who wanted to fight. Who wanted to fight both sides, both extreme sides. Other newsrooms were not that lucky. In most other places the publishers compromised with the king, the army, the police. We were marked as being the opposition. The king and his ministers called us the eighth political party because there were seven political parties in the demonstration, so we were blamed as the eighth party. Like your president says today, ‘fake news! Fake news!’ Exactly the same way. Eighth party. That was a different situation, a different time but when I read something about President Trump saying fake news, I resonate with it. ‘Eighth party, eighth party.’ There is an echo.”
Start simple and with the most fascinating details, Deepak Adikhari says. And our current setting is ripe with it, bright teddy bears and hand-carved portraits of Osama Bin Laden, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mahatma Ghandi, Albert Einstein lining the walls of a former Maoist child soldier’s office. He is sitting, dressed in a suit and snuggly wrapped tie, talking with Deepak about his growing art business and his experiences as a young teen alongside comrades. From Dolakha, he served as a spy for the Maoists as the ten year insurgency was coming to a close; he shows photos of his family’s house when Deepak asks him to describe it. The details and anecdotes are what Deepak is most interested, in writing a feature that looks at the young man’s venture into business, P & T Handicraft. It takes time and an additional meeting to capture a full timeline and get to the space of exchange where real details emerge. At one point, the boy and his brother were asked to carry bombs to a police station raid but said no because the instructions were vague, and they didn’t quite understand. It turned out to be a well-known raid that killed 7 police officers and 4 Maoists. Other details and locations, dates are harder to pin down, Deepak says, because the Maoists didn’t typically record or note down their path. This can make storytelling in a traditional feature format challenging- and as in any piece, finding the opening for interest is most important. Though he wrote for Nepali publications for most of his career, Deepak now writes for a German wire service; he takes notes in Nepali in clean bullet points and writes in English, then translated for a German audience.
“The battle is the lead,” he says. Leaving the interview, he is thinking about the faces and bears in the background.
Sometimes, it’s a coincidental falling into place at a newspaper. For a correspondent with Nepali daily Kantipur from the city of Janakpur in southern Nepal, it was a nudge from a cousin to pursue a job at a local publication. A journalist with digital, entirely women-run Indian publication Khabar Lahariya needed a consistent income in 2007, and stuck with it for far longer than expected because she got used to the rhythm of reporting and found it interesting.
Most recently, I attended a workshop with Khabar Lahariya in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh. Nine women came to the publication’s office for a training in becoming part time reporters, which would involve recording video of their home districts on smartphones and writing scripts for the stories. Ages 15 to 35, they came for different reasons, but there was a common emphasis on needing to tell women’s stories in particular. These are women who might not have worked before and, in most instances, from low-caste backgrounds.
Since its founding in 2002, Khabar Lahariya has covered, at different moments, both Bihar and Uttar Pradesh- two of the biggest and simultaneously underreported states of India. It is produced entirely of women, and does not discriminate based on caste- “I’m from a low caste, too,” Meera, chief reporter, said in opening remarks to a group of women gathered on the floor. I came along to the workshop, to learn about how training works on the ground, but also to record and video the discussions as a future training tool for KL.
The first morning, the attendees scattered across the room to handwrite their reasons for wanting to work for KL. On the second morning, five of the new reporters sat in a circle with a sheet of folk song lyrics in the model. I didn’t know what it was that they were saying until days later; here and in Nepal, listening in foreign languages by nature involves absorbing information in other ways.
A Bundeli folk song, its lyrics translated go something like this:
My days in Nepal were spent in conversation with journalists who report for different platforms, including editors and correspondents at Nepali Times (an english-language weekly), República (a daily newspaper in both Nepali and English- its Nepali name, Nagarik, means ‘citizen’), Nepal TV (the oldest TV station in Nepal, though it is funded and partially run by the government), Kantipur (the Nepali newspaper with the largest distribution), The Record (a long form essay and feature publication; “less a source for breaking news than a place where writers and readers can reflect on the news of the day.”), and Radio Sagarmatha, South Asia’s oldest community radio station, in addition to a few freelancers and other radio journalists in Kathmandu, Janakpur, and Birgunj.
In Kathmandu, I spent time editing copy on Thursday afternoons at an English language weekly. During morning radio shows, I sat next to technicians while reporters read news, highlighted and hand picked, from national papers aloud on community station Radio Sagarmatha. I took two hours of Nepali with my tutor, most regularly for the first few weeks and periodically after that. A photo journalist returned to a story about a shelter that provides livelihood support for houseless women, and I sat alongside him as he spoke with a woman whom he had interviewed two years before. In early September, I covered local elections in Nepal, following the lead of local reporters, who shared their contacts and took me to different interviews, from house to house; and at the tail end of the three months, a radio journalist covering earthquake recovery in Charikot Dolakha allowed me the chance to accompany her as she reported.
This is all to say, I have been very lucky in meeting some amazing, incredibly generous people, and in watching stories unfold and come together over time. And that’s something I realize now- that this year is not so much about actually documenting journalistic processes (though interviewing journalists about this is very interesting and still a big part of what I’m doing), but about taking the time to understand topics and community dynamics that are completely unfamiliar. Earthquake rebuilding and recovery. The Madhesi Movement. Demonetization in India. Press censorship in the Maldives. The spread of Christianity in Nepal.
It’s a Nepali word that means alone, by oneself, a singular unit. I heard it first from my housemates when learning Nepali during the first few days of August, and confirmed its meaning with my teacher, Geeta, while getting used to talking about what I’m doing this year. Ma staaniya paatrakaarita sikdaichhu. This is a year of exploring independently in unfamiliar places and languages, and taking time to understand the dynamics of local journalism in a country; not to compare or think in terms of relativity to other places, but to be present in Nepal as distilled within its borders.
And then, as quickly as eklai became a part of my Nepali vocabulary, it disappeared. In part, this is because, at one point, I misappropriated the word for a phrase I imagined to mean “firstly…” (confusing this new “eklai” with the word for “one,” which is “ek”). I then quickly adopted it and used it accidentally in a series of interviews and was told later by my lovely friends and reporters at Nepali Times that this made absolutely no sense in the context I was using it… And so it remained an office joke and crack of comic relief, and a mark of eklai coming to mean different things.
Even as I’m becoming comfortable with the day-to-day parts of being without any formal ties in a new country, I’m finding more and more that this year is actually about people completely. This year isn’t really about being alone, or being isolated from realities in other places (the U.S. included). So far, it’s been a project in asking questions and having long conversations, more than anything, while seeking to understand diverse places in all their complexities.
Nepali Times ended up functioning as my base, and a consistent quasi-internship in which I edited content, wrote articles as I saw appropriate and helpful for my project, and generally observed, shadowed, and assisted in the newsroom. In doing this, I had the chance to thoroughly read each week’s issue, and observe the balance of stories filling the pages. This also entailed long digs into the web archives of the paper to embed links with key words in articles, through which I consumed stories written during the height of the Maoist insurgency from 1996 to 2006, to coverage of the 2015 earthquake aftermath, to editorials shortly before I arrived.
The paper itself is a stand out among Nepali media, though as an English language weekly, it is a publication that reaches mostly educated, affluent readers within Kathmandu and often times abroad. And yet, the stories they are telling are more reflective and shaped by historical context than almost any other newspaper in Nepal. Just this morning, I finished writing what will be the first “reader’s editorial” of the newspaper, in which I, from the perspective of a regular reader and someone who has also spent extensive time at the publication, critique the coverage and approach of the paper.
Because Nepali Times leadership, and therefore its political stance, has not changed, there is a consistent echo and sameness of vouching for the political status quo in many of its editorials, but also in its other content. In publishing in English, too, the paper is restricting stories that could be powerful and impactful for a broader Nepali audience to an English one. The reason for writing in English is part of the editor, Kunda Dixit’s, vision for better journalism in Nepal. He said that foreign media often covered Nepal with so many gaps that he felt creating an English language platform that would thoroughly tell the real stories here would be important for education and for developing an archive of in-depth information.
These questions of English languages vs. localized tongues; print vs. digital; and the balance of local news with a broader perspective continue to fill my mind, especially now as I start over in a new place. The divide between the big and English-speaking media is striking, as is the coverage of media based in Kathmandu versus localized outlets. With exceptions, large publications, rushed by daily deadlines, often skim the surface and present the passage of new laws and events without digging in. They perhaps have more resources and receive more attention, but this is because of their perspective from Nepal’s capital.
“Trekkers are like sheep,” the female manager of Thorung Phedi Base Camp Lodge said to us. She had brought over two mugs of black coffee and paused when we asked about the timing between this lodge and the high camp before Thorang La Pass, about 800 meters higher on the hillside in less than 2 kilometers. It was a quick but unarguably pretty steep climb—one that seemed doable in the word-on-the-street rough estimate of an hour but slightly daunting with the destination’s elevation of 4,900 meters.
My friend Kim and I were on our sixth day of hiking an abbreviated version of the Annapurna Circuit- the next day, we would come over the final hump of our journey hidera ma and slide down 2,000 meters into the desert and dry hills rising around the city of Muktinath, in the Mustang region of Nepal.
The manager explained to us the common approach of many eager Circuit trekkers. People catch wind of other going to certain villages (“oh, you’re going to Ledar? That seems like a good idea, me too.” “Same, yeah, that makes a lot of sense, etc. etc.). and walk, many footprints strong in the wake of others ahead of them on the trail. This sort of accountability is beautiful, in a sense. Trekkers rely on each other, change, and adjust their routes as they meet new people. It is not a mistake to go higher- but the manager, the eyes and ears watching trekkers come and go since she’d started working alongside her partner in their business a year and a half ago, seemed amused by the different flocks of trekkers always hungry to go higher. Humans like to follow another in herds. We like to know about others that have come before us; sometimes, people feel better in knowing that more will come after they have disappeared.
We began, our first night in the city of Besishahar, sleeping around the typical hour of 11:30, midnight. In Chame, then Pisang, Manag, Tilicho Base Camp, SiriKarkha, our nights became shorter and shorter until we were almost sleeping at 8 pm and rising (almost) without alarms at 5 am; sometimes earlier as the feet before us recommended.
A fellow hiker from the Netherlands we’d met before, sunglasses still on, hat backwards, stepped into the lodge and stood next to our table for a short rest before the climb. “The day is still young,” he said. “It’ll make tomorrow shorter.”
In Kathmandu, newspapers are still the openers to the day for some people; sometimes, the containers for greasy pieces of food- they are most everywhere in the capital while in other corners of Nepal, news travels more extensively through spoken mediums.
If you buy roti at a corner shop, it will be given to you wrapped in newspaper tiny print with a colorful rubber band tied around it. Walking by the two taxis that often sit on the corner near my house, a young man sat, one foot and a half-on sandal dangling out the window, Kantipur crumpled against his chest. A cluster of early risers drink coffee at the shop on the corner before I turn onto the main road, Pulchowk, front pages facing the street. They line walls like fans and hang fringed above counters on big streets. More commonly they are for sale just in Nepali language but English dailies make appearances, more often than not.
I often ask people in Kathmandu (and elsewhere )what they read, and most will say they read Kantipur, the best known and widely circulated newspaper in Nepal, and perhaps name another publication or two. Some will say they don’t really read the newspapers at all.
Outside Kathmandu, this changes drastically. In Janakpur, I walked multiple mornings by a group of people perched on benches by the city’s central lake, instead reading a paper with an appearance I hadn’t seen widely until coming outside of Kathmandu- a four or six page daily in smaller type, on whiter and thinner paper. Here, the national dailies have less of a presence but the news they publish still often makes its way in original form; One correspondent for a national paper based in Jankapur told me that in some cases, news in these papers comes from national publications- articles are sometimes copy and pasted or taken in large part from the big papers, and appear in local ones.
Usually, the front page of the big print newspapers is made up of political stories and many acronyms: “No plan to postpone polls, say NC [Nepali Congress party] leaders.” “MoE [Ministry of Education] agrees to amend HPE [Health Profession Education] Bill in line with Dr KC’s demand.” (From The Kathmandu Post) “RPP [Rastriya Pajantra Party] to support Deuba-led govt.” “Saud appointmented GM of NEPSE [Nepal Stock Exchange Limited].” (From Nepal Rising, a state-run newspaper).
Most of the people that I’ve talked to, and some of the reporters I work with, tire of the political stories and hearing the latest daily doings of Nepal’s politicians. They say they have lost belief in the current electorates as representatives of the people or proponents of development for the public. Though this is a widely-held sentiment, people’s actions despite this common feeling differ; some continue to vote for a certain party even though they say they don’t believe that change will come, while others tune out from politics entirely.
I have a friend in Nepal who does many interviews not as a journalist, but as someone who walks. On three separate occasions, he’s taken off on foot- once across the mountains, once across the Terai in the south- and he talks to people. He carries a thready backpack and the essential basics; he uses a phone and not a camera to capture the people he meets to avoid the dimension of speaking for the record that it adds to the interaction. Later, he looks at the photos he takes and thinks back on the conversation carefully, without notes. He remembers what stood out to him as interesting, important, thought provoking. And in a mode of work that is not quite journalism, he writes out a small portion of what that person said. The excerpts aren’t informed by any taken notes, but from memory. It is less the details of the moment of the conversation that are important, as are the things that continue to rattle around after it. Let’s call it the art of what sticks.
Manila racks stacked with video archives run backwards until they hit a wall, thirty-three years away. It’s September 18, 2017 the day of the final phase of local elections in the southern province of Nepal. The tapes are held in consistently sized charcoal binders, labeled with white paper and episode numbers. It is the oldest archive of journalistic video footage by Nepali media, starting with the work of Nepali TV starting in 1984. Thirty-years running now, the channel produces material across eight different broadcast stations with a combination of analog and digital technology.
Nepal TV began as a government-operated TV station, though today it also is dependent on a mix of independent advertisers in addition to some government support. At the same time, the channel does remain a described spokesperson for the latest updates. Live broadcasts begin with reports on the latest news in government.
I had just returned from spending time with journalists in Janakpur in the lead up to the local election, and now, I was standing here in a TV newsroom. Though I’m not a broadcast journalist, I was curious to see what the insides of such a newsroom in Nepal look like, to watch too how an essentially state-run media discusses the elections.
For the 2 pm broadcast, a reporter in Janakpur was going to go on-air, live, from a polling center in the middle of the city. Earlier, technical glitches had prevented a live report from being broadcasted as planned. But now, instructions were being given to the reporter over the phone as he adjusted his microphone. And then, from the field, the broadcast began as voters moved forward in the voting line behind him.
In other news, the main topics up for broadcast were noted on pieces of paper next to the technicians (whom were all female except for one- in contrast to the news room of editors, where one woman was seated around the table). The Bangladesh Rohingya refugee crisis, Muslim refugees in Myranmar. A wind storm in Romania, 8 deaths. A koala in Australia that survived a 16 kilometer ride on a car axle. Updates on the Nepal U-19 cricket team. Climbing, for sport, in Germany.
And then, back to elections. At a computer, a technician was copy and pasting party symbols into the queue, to be broadcasted on screen as politicians from different affiliations spoke.
Twelve staff, three reporters. Kalinchowk FM, 106 MHz, broadcasted from Charikot Dolakha, broadcasts from a hillside in a sand colored building, on the third floor. They broadcast 17 hours a day, typically, with a mix of programs that begins with a three hour series of news. There are two rooms for radio shows- one for live recordings, and one for taping programs- with computers and two mics on tables.
This year, and specifically this month, the radio is celebrating its eleventh anniversary. They are “returning to the grassroots,” by engaging listeners in dancing, singing, and community conversations.
Towards the end of my time in Nepal, I spent time shadowing radio journalist Nirashi Thami in the field, after meeting her at a conference in Kathmandu. As a reporter both for her local FM station and national service BBC Nepali, she has extensively covered 2015 earthquake (recovery and rebuilding. Her own family were victims of the earthquake; their house was destroyed, and they are still staying in another home as a new house is rebuilt).
I learned from both Nirashi and the Kalinchowk station manager about how reporters camped out in a tent for about a month after the earthquake, reporting and broadcasting from the field because their office had been destroyed. This kind of persistence was shared by many community radio broadcasters in Nepal- as Sonia Awale writes in an article for Nepali Times about radio coverage after the earthquake, there were a total of 61 community radio stations in the 14 districts damaged by the earthquake, 30 of which were housed in buildings in collapse. For about one month after, the Kalinchowk FM team reported from a tent in Charikot about food and relief distribution, safety and the most recent news from the government regarding the earthquake aftermath.
We walked from Nirashi’s house, up the road and down small trails past other cottages that had not been there before the earthquakes, and I came along as she interviewed fellow community members; people who were outside their houses and whom we encountered at random. As someone who doesn’t speak the language, this required a different kind of observation. I was at times worried that I wouldn’t absorb as much (I certainly didn’t, of course) because of the language barrier, but there were other things I could absorb that, in a way, taught me more about the bare bones of storytelling than I might learn from even someone with whom I share a language.
I was able to watch how Nirashi, with her manner and body language, approached people in the community. Walking along a road, she approached people working outside their houses, leaning against motorbikes on the road, and struck up conversations. Within a minute, she took out her portable microphone and recorder and the exchange began; she proceeded with questions about the state of their land, their houses, their struggles as they were open to discussing them, I was able to watch her body language, the flow of language between them, gauge the experiences they were explaining about their own lack of access to building resources and water.
I could see how, later, when we ran into a couple carrying baskets that once carried chickens back to their farmhouse, she began asking questions and when it seemed appropriate, asked politely to go back to their house and interview them about their time and processes starting up a poultry farmer in the village.
Though the language barrier meant that I could not translate or know the details of discussions word for word, I could see the process for how she put together reports and went about finding people to speak to- by foot, and by organic conversation, a seeking out of gathering conversations rather than pursuing a particular angle, at least in the initial stages of reporting. There are times when it has been frustrating and hard to not know quotes, word for word; there are details and intricacies in communication that I am missing, of course, all the time. But, I also feel that I’m almost relearning how to be a journalist and letting go of any pre-existing approaches I’ve held. In the places I’ve previously reported, primarily on Bainbridge Island and in Claremont, I’ve been a person of and immersed in those relatively slow-moving places. I am a student in learning about both the present dynamics of these places and processes of journalism.
In Batase village, three women- a mother and her two daughters- gather Sayapatri, or marigolds, for use as garlands and in prayers during the festival of Tihar. In tagging along with photojournalist Ashok Maharjan, we spent the morning in the fields as the trio picked and filled baskets with the flowers; then came along when they carried the baskets to their house and poured the orange bulbs onto mats, from which they will pack the flowers for transporting and sale tomorrow in Kathmandu.
“The beginning and ending of a video is the hardest part,” Ashok said, as we finished shooting. He stopped on the path to take stills of the flowers themselves. “You always have to think about the frames, the sequences, what you are showing.”
At other moments on the way back, he paused to film the road winding up the hill across from us, showing the context of the festival garland-flower cultivation and distance from Kathmandu; and then the city itself from above. A flower will appear at the start and the end of the video, he says, to show its place and importance at the heart of the process.
There is a distinct divide between Kathmandu-based and more localized media, but things are also changing rapidly alongside Nepal. People in Kathmandu do not depend on radio anymore, and most turn to Facebook or say they read Kantipur, Nepal’s newspaper with the largest circulation, for news. Radio Sagarmatha, based out of a multi-story house and recording studio on the edge of the Ring Road, used to be widely listened to and a major source for news. It still broadcasts about 18-20 hours a day, seven days a week, but the radio itself is currently going through some changes to revive its resonance with listeners which have decreased very significantly since the early 2000s. Their programs are often a mix of interviews with significant politicians or figures, updates and testimonies on the earthquake, historical perspectives from older members of society, or readings of hand-selected articles from the national daily newspapers.
The radio’s compilation of programs is broad and fascinating, involving a mix of both current news and more culturally focused ones, but the segments do not usually involve journalists stepping out into the field. Its affiliate, the Nepal Forum for Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ), similarly was turned to as the most expert collective of environmental news, but now its work is slowed by a presence not designed for the web.
A group of young interns gathered together to work out a social media and website campaign for Radio Sagarmatha and NEFEJ, thinking through how to revitalize and engage readers using the core strengths and niche of the platforms. Without it, they said, they think Radio Sagarmatha’s listenership will disappear completely. Currently, this group is working on developing a new social media and website plan for the organization. I had the chance to sit in on meetings and offer ideas for execution of social media and fleshing out a new vision for NEFEJ, which will soon be presented to the board of directors. The hope is that NEFEJ can slowly develop its web presence to reach more viewers and regain its place, by posting original content and linking radio programs to the web, by bringing more in the field work and photographs to audiences outside the radio. It will take time, but NEFEJ’s legacy and team is dedicated. The interns and staff members have hope and a strong commitment to making the programs more accessible.
At night, often at dark, I would come home to the guesthouse I stayed at from a meeting or conversation or conference or lecture, feeling full and dizzy with thoughts, thoughts which I wasn’t sure how to fit together or articulate at times. Instead, I found myself writing or putting things together most clearly while I was moving or in transit on a bus, passing from one point to another. I write every day in my journals, and have been documenting in long chunks my experience while also capturing the journalistic processes of reporters in photographs. I’m realizing that my writer self, my reflective self, is different from my journalist self. The journalist in me can awake at 5 a.m., ride helmet-less on the back of a motorbike, chat with politicians and march in the sun and come back, though exhausted, and write off an article with energized fingers. Deadlines are my driving force and provide an energy that completely fuels creativity.
In Nepal, I’ve written about my experience navigating public transportation as a foreigner (I wrote my senior thesis about buses as a critical space in social mobilization, and so have a strong love for buses that has most definitely grown while in Nepal… minor collision and bumpy rides aside) the enthusiasm youth have for local elections; the “bridging of hills and plains” exemplified by the candidate choices of different parties in local elections; how foreigners in Nepali celebrate Dashain, a family-centric holiday; a piece on a Senegalese jazz artist; and a profile of Zaheena Rasheed, a former Watson fellow whom I met at an International Federation for Journalists Conference and Maldivian journalist who was exhiled from the country for her investigative reporting. In each case, I’ve learned about entirely new topics and grown in the process of reporting them.
It instills in me a strong desire to keep telling stories this year, but I also want to be very attentive to my position and the intention of this project. Going forward, I hope to pursue my project not just by shadowing and observing, but also by reporting and participating when circumstances are appropriate. There were definitely moments in Kathmandu when I didn’t want to become too involved for fear of over stepping a boundary, or ask too many questions of journalists working hard on their stories. I’ve talked about this with different people , who have told me about the problems they’ve seen in foreign coverage of Nepal. And yet, at other times, they say that foreign journalists have covered certain narratives, such as the Madhesi movement, more accurately than Nepali outlets because they are not swayed by internal politics or tensions.
This idea of domestic coverage vs. external coverage is represented by two conferences I attended, both in early September in Kathmandu. One was a gathering of journalists put on by NEFEJ, in which journalists from 18 different earthquake-affected districts in Nepal came together to discuss a collaborative program on rebuilding that they hoped to put together. Over the course of a few days (of which I attended different portions), different speakers came to share about the science of earthquakes and geology in Nepal and offer up perspectives on how best to cover its aftermath. Each of the reporters went back to different districts to focus on a mix of sectors and ultimately build out a program that would air across Nepal. With the program, they hope to tell stories that go beyond the investigative or political approaches of news reporting, and instead lay out a full picture of all the factors at work in their communities post-earthquakes. “Do not kill the stories yourself,” said Ramesh Bhushal, General Secretary of NEFEJ, encouraging reporters not to censor their own ideas or assume a particular angle is not a story from the surface.
Watching local journalists from different places discuss a common devastation and think about how to address the big picture impacts while detailing the localized realities- it is powerful. This is an example of how local journalism can reach beyond communities and extend its stories with many arms to a greater context- linking localized realities. Though a title for the program was not formally decided on, a few ideas were discussed; they were, “common life,” and “new destination.”
Another conference I attended was an International Federation of Journalists lecture in Kathmandu, an awe-inspiring gathering of another kind. It brought together a group of journalists from countries across South Asia-Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, India, Nepal- whom participated in a few days of workshopping. One night of the workshop was spent learning about the work of Zaheena Rasheed, an Al Jazeera producer and the former Editor of The Maldives Independent.
On August 31, 2016, Zaheena reluctantly left the Maldives after working on an Al Jazeera investigative unit documentary that exposed corruption and money laundering at the highest levels of Maldivian government. Following years of threats and government harassment, her participation in the film was the tipping point that forced her to leave the country to eventually settle in Doha, Qatar, where she still lives today. In that room, and in her work, Zaheena spoke and continues to speak for greater regional solidarities between journalists, recognizing the mental health impacts of reporting, and fighting to tell truthful stories under governments that act to instill fear.
“How do you tell a story objectively when that story is something that is happening to you and your loved ones? It was very hard to report and write updates on what was happening in that [colleague Ahmed Rilwan’s] investigation. As much as we talk about safety and security protocols, I think it’s really important to incorporate mental health into newsrooms.
There’s such a wealth of experience in South Asia, and there’s so much we have to learn from each other. We need a louder regional conversation on press freedom.”
The journalists gathered responded thoughtfully to Zaheena’s story, and discussed approaches to supporting one another in future incidents of oppression and violent censorship; what can solidarity, beyond that extended by an organization such as IFJ, look like between journalists themselves? More communication, seemed to be an answer.
I listened in and learned a lot about the dynamics between coverage of countries in the region. Largely, many journalists said, there is a lack of reporting on other countries and close attention to stories outside of national contexts. Thus, journalists talked about the importance of writing about one another’s experiences, particularly in censorship; throughout South Asia, many of the questions surrounding press freedom are very similar. And yet, most journalists said that their coverage is largely insular; this in itself, is contradictory, but in addition to localized coverage, stories from other places can play a very important role in perceptions and interactions with domestic issues.
This year, too, I am a different form of journalist than I’ve experienced before. I’m still figuring out how to balance the hats- of listener, journalist, empathetic human being, student, friend, colleague- I want to wear within my fellowship, but what I am also realizing is that my writer self reflects slowly, privately, and in long stretches. My writer self is one which holds the big ideas and questions that connect over time, and though I am still anxious about the pressure to constantly produce, I am learning how to be comfortable with this being part of a much longer journey.
In Birgunj, a city near the India-Nepal border, I went with a TV journalist to speak with Babita Paudel, a Birgunj citizen, and her family about their thoughts on the local elections. This woman did not support any particular party or candidate, but felt more broadly happy and hopeful that the local elections will bring about “development” in Birgunj- by development, she seemed to mean improvement of roads, increasing number of jobs for youth, and improving education and treatment of young girls.
“The public are feeling like it’s a festival,” her daughter, Neha Paudel told me. “They are happy it is happening after years and years, but each and every person knows that any development is not going to happen. Everyone [politicians] is taking agenda, they are spending time for locals. They know they are not getting anything back, they’re just spending time here [getting votes].”
“We do not have faith,” she said. “We have hope.”
Throughout it all, it is also impossible to not think about American media. It cannot be avoided, nor would it be true to the reality of media here to avoid it. Walking up a hill with Nirashi Thami, a BBC and Kalinchowk FM reporter, in Charikot a few mornings ago, she carried a phone that played BBC Nepali aloud. As I tried to listen in and catch snippets in Nepali about the upcoming elections, there it was; “Trump” and a flurry of words. Nirashi turned back and looked at me, to see if I’d noticed.
At an International Federation for Journalists conference in Kathmandu, a Pakistani journalist told me that there were watching parties, and long hours blocked out on Pakistani TV channels for broadcasting of the Presidential debates and election. Young children, she said, were just as knowledgable if not more about American politics than their own country’s.
One moment from that same conference continues to stick with me. An assortment of journalists from across South Asia-India, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Pakistan- sat around a table, chatting and talking politics and fondly reconnecting after dinner. And as we began discussing the American election, of media coverage and experiences watching the campaign unfold from afar, the Pakistani journalist looked me in the eye.
“Americans do not realize that the whole world is watching them,” she said.
American media, and American politics, is its own saturated bubble. There is an abundance of both big media and independent journalists, telling stories for polarized audiences. But our attention to other areas of the world is short lived, when breaking disasters and headlines briefly capture sympathy. American exceptionalism and what I think is self-perceived isolation in our fate of fighting against our current President, is so present. There is so much we can learn in thinking about the realities of other places and considering the angle of American election repercussions outside of the U.S. It’s not just us who are feeling plagued and disturbed by news updates about the latest action by the Trump administration. We are not alone, either, in living under an unfit president, or in a place where media is, relatively, under threat. There are especially strong parallels between the comments and action taken by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump (will talk about these in a later, more condensed post), as reflected in this piece by the Wire.
News at the grassroots is vitally important, but as the perspectives of the journalists at the conference will tell you, closer reportage of countries across borders is also a necessity. Within the context of South Asia, many journalists say that there is a big lack in in-depth reporting on other countries, despite the parallels in politics and media censorship.
And so, the journey continues! I cannot believe it’s been about four months- so much to go but I also feel very lucky to have spent this time in India and Nepal. To close off and round back to Dharamshala. I’ll close out with a quote from a Rolling Stone interview with Susan Sontag that has stuck with me since then:
“I said earlier that the task of the writer is to pay attention to the world, but obviously I think that the task of the writer, as I conceive of it for myself, is also to be in an aggressive and adversarial relationship to falsehoods of all kinds… And once again, knowing perfectly well that this is an endless task, since you’re never going to end falsehood or false consciousness or systems of interpretation… I think there should always be freelance people who, however quixotic it may be, are trying to lop off a couple of more heads, trying to destroy hallucination and falsehood and demagogy- and making things more complicated, because there’s an inevitable drift towards making things more simple. But for me, the most awful thing would be to feel that I’d agree with the things I’ve already said and written- that is what would make me most uncomfortable because that would mean that I had stopped thinking.” -Susan Sontag.