In early 2006 when King Gyanendra imposed media blackout after a power grab, severely curtailing press freedom, bloggers from around the nation emerged as a new source of up to the minute information on what is happening on the streets and public opinion on the political crises. While the traditional media outfits were restricted, citizens powered with access to the internet and knowledge of new media took it upon themselves to inform the world about Nepal’s current situation. Leading the emerging Nepali new media were bloggers at MySansar, United We Blog, and Sajha.
MySansar, with mostly Nepali posts occasionally interrupted by English, stood out among the pioneer blogs for its straight forwards reporting, made more interesting with picture and video component. United We Blog is more measured and Sajha attracts more expatriate Nepalese readership.
After the April 2006 revolution, which saw the Nepalese King lose most of his powers and reduced to a strictly ceremonial figure, Nepali web focused citizen journalism has seen a rapid growth. According to WebLali, a roughly compiled directory of Nepali blogs and Blogger, there are about 200-300 blogs on various topics ranging from politics to aviation and tourism. The number seems insignificant, but in the Nepali context it is big achievement. Consider this: based on 2006 data, there are only 249,400 internet users in the country and GDP-per capita is $15,000. Only 48% of the population is literate.
Present scene looks encouraging, but citizen journalism in Nepal is still in its infancy and faces many problems. These challenges include the country’s troublesome record on press freedom, a rise in attacks against journalists and activists, ethnic tensions and financial constraints.
In early November of 2007, journalist Birendra Shah was kidnapped; his whereabouts remained unknown for about a month. Later the Maoists guerrillas admitted to the kidnapping and murder. Although the reasons remain unclear, it is widely speculated that Shah was killed because he was working on a story linking Maoists to cross-border smuggling. In June, Reporters Without Borders published a report saying that 72 journalists were attacked or threatened by armed groups including the Maoists since the beginning of this year.
Salik Shah, who started out as a citizen journalist and a blogger, and now works for KantipurOnline (owned by Kantipur Publications, the nation’s largest media organization), often contributes to OhMyNews.com, a citizen media site based in South Korea. He laments the fact that there are very few purely citizen powered media in Nepal and the traditional media organizations have largely ignored the citizen created content and the financial constraints faced by citizen reporters. Here is an excerpt from our conversation:
I admit we should be doing more to establish citizen journalism in Nepal, so that we don’t have to rely on the foreign options.
Within the country, we struggle to get a platform, and we have to rely on foreign media. At the same time, I also consider myself lucky to get such opportunities and exposure in the global scenario. We’ve a larger audience, and this is also one of the greatest challenges we, citizen journalists, face.
Now that I’m employed in a ‘big’ media house I miss my work as a citizen journalist. I must say, my colleagues are not really serious about my work as a blogger and a citizen reporter. And, I strongly sense that they don’t give much importance to online media either. Recently, nearly a dozen online journalists initiated the task of setting up a separate organization for us. We’re working to get recognition from the Federation of Nepalese Journalists as online journalists.
The choice Mr. Shah had to make to leave citizen journalism to be a mainstream media employee is not an isolated incident.
Life as a citizen journalist in one of the world’s poorest nation is a tough journey. Getting paid for your work is not easy, considering that even in the United States there are very few media organizations that pay for user created content. It is not surprising that they seek to work for an organization, for the sake of financial and professional security.
Citizen journalists are not given "journalist" status by the Nepalese law, which makes them especially vulnerable to attacks and intimidation. And the archaic copyright law of the nation offers very little protection to their intellectual property.
Towards the end of our conversation, Mr. Shah remarked that he is hopeful that someday the country and the big media establishments will recognize the work of citizen journalists. Yet for now, Nepali citizen journalists continue to work amidst great challenges.
Photo from Indy Media