Wednesday, 19 June, 2024

Editorial Guts Ensures Fair Coverage


Ritu Raj Subedi 

The Rising Nepal (TRN) turns 56 today. As the country’s oldest running English newspaper, TRN has become a witness to transformative political, economic, cultural and digital changes. It was established with the mission of providing factual information, analytical views and healthy entertainment to the readers. It continues to stick to this original goal. As the state-owned media, it primarily used to publish the government’s policy, decisions and speeches and activities of kings, prime ministers, ministers and other government officials. Nonetheless, this does not mean that the news of the common people did not find space in it. TRN’s old copies show that human interest and development stories were in the top priority.

It is argued that the official media cannot exercise much editorial freedom when it comes to political reporting. Many carry such notion as they see state media’s extensive coverage of royalties in the past or that of ruling party leaders now. But this line of thought is not always true if one goes through TRN’s history. There was a time when TRN had demonstrated professional guts and discernment during the difficult political juncture. It had tried to present balanced coverage of events related to ruling and opposition political forces.

 Litmus test
In 1980, king Birendra announced a referendum on the party-less Panchayat system 20 years after it was introduced. People had to choose between a reformed Panchayat system and a multiparty system. In his proclamation, the king expressed his commitment to giving equal treatment of political views in the official media. This was the litmus test for The Rising Nepal to cover the campaign of both sides fairly during the referendum.

The then editor-in-chief of TRN M R Josse took up this challenge with grit and determination. Brushing aside the potential obstacle, he dared to give due space to the news of pro-democracy campaigners in TRN, which was then followed by Gorkhapatra, National News Agency and Radio Nepal. This way TRN was a trendsetter in the coverage of the crucial political event that had a positive impact on the country’s democratic evolution.
"Soon after the announcement of the referendum, I called an editorial meeting and explained that since the rules of the political game had dramatically changed, henceforth a conscious effort must be made by TRN to provide equal treatment, in coverage of both political options,” said Josse in a conversation with this scribe. It was not easy to treat the pro and anti-Panchayat forces equally given that then bureaucracy was under the sway of a monolithic system. At one point, Josse threatened to resign before the concerned minister to implement the royal proclamation.
“Though I had to threaten to quit the editorship of the paper to have this accepted before the then minister of foreign affairs and communication K.B. Shahi after maintaining the changed policy, over time, there developed a general acceptance that media coverage of the multi-party choice was fair,” he said.

According to him, the US State Department, in its annual human rights report, recorded this fact. The outcome of the referendum went in favour Panchayat system. The pro-multiparty system had accused the Panchas of rigging the vote. There was a growing call to reject the results of the plebiscite, but Nepali Congress president BP Koirala accepted it on moral grounds.
Josse recalled how Koirala was impressed by TRN's coverage of the referendum. In his query about the fairness of TRN's coverage of political events, BP responded, in English, "Mr Josse, The Rising Nepal's coverage has been more than fair."

Josse further said: “In my opinion, this new climate of fairness in the coverage of both sides of the referendum equation contributed to the acceptance of the result. BP's acknowledgement of the fairness of coverage, which I initiated, was thus only logical but possibly prevented bloodshed and political upheaval.”
Chief Editor Josse faced a similar dilemma while publishing news on the demise of NC charismatic leader BP Koirala in July 1982. When BP was on his deathbed, the Royal Palace Communications Secretariat called a meeting of editors of state-owned media to discuss how to deal with news of BP's demise. Some hardliners wanted to either blackout or downplay this news in government media outlets. Most of the editors were not courageous enough to tell the authorities about the value of the news.

"Finally, I belled the cat and told them it was a highly sensitive and emotional issue that the domestic and foreign readers want to know about with much curiosity. I convinced them that this news should be published with priority if not the main news,” said Josse. He warned that it would be counterproductive if they failed to publish it. Then palace officials were convinced, and the news was prominently displayed on the front page, and other media followed suit. "I also wrote an editorial on it in a respectful manner."

Professional Fortitude
The above cases amply suggest that editorial leadership requires professional fortitude and power of persuasion. Visionary and competent leadership, backed by all editorial staff, helps ensure editorial independence, fairness and a balanced viewpoint in the paper by overcoming political pressure and bureaucratic constraints. As the state-run media, TRN has the responsibility to disseminate accurate information to the public, which it has been discharging since its inception. In addition to its adherence to basic values of journalism, TRN has been defending national interest, popular sovereignty, territorial integrity and independent foreign policy.

TRN was born at a time when the Cold War was at its peak. Sandwiched between the two giants, Nepal had crafted autonomous and practical foreign policy for its effective participation, visibility and presence in bilateral, regional and global platforms. TRN was instrumental in articulating the nation’s viewpoints and positions on contested international issues. This way TRN has been serving the broader interest of people and the nation.

(Deputy Executive Editor of The Rising Nepal, Subedi writes regularly on politics, foreign affairs and other contemporary issues.