Chronicle of a death not foretold
15 November 2016
‘Himal Southasian’ is suspending publication. Our editor explains the reasons and how this development is part of a wider phenomenon that is limiting freedom of expression across Southasia.
This may well be the last issue of Himal Southasian in its current incarnation that you hold in your hands. But it will certainly not be the last gasp of the magazine. The ‘idea of Himal Southasian’ which provided the genesis for the magazine, is far more than the sum of its parts, far more than the publishing operation run out of Kathmandu which is now being forced to shut down.
The idea conceptualised by Founding Editor Kanak Mani Dixit, contains a multitude of ideas but at its core is the idea of looking at Southasia in a way that gives space to the perspectives of peoples that do not often find expression in mainstream media. It is the idea that the region, which contains almost a quarter of the world’s population, can only progress with a clear-eyed view of its challenges and recognition of its interwoven destiny. It is the idea that geographical contiguity, the cultural continuities, and the contradictions and commonalities of our recent history make a shared understanding imperative. It is however not an outlook the mainstream media cultivates.
FACT AND FICTION
Articles on Freedom of Expression
This article is from our final issue ‘Fact and Fiction’. The quarterly issue has articles on freedom of expression and collection of fiction from the Southasia. Other articles on freedom of expression include:
Of Eco and Echoes – Salil Tripathi
The business of news – Sukumar Muralidharan
Freeing the fourth state – Tisaranee Gunasekara
Whose media is it anyway? – Neha Dixit
The state of surveillance – Sana Saleem
Web of Control – Sarah Eleazar
A significant section of the press in Southasia is increasingly defined by the commercial motive, with profits displacing editorial considerations. The idea of journalism as a public service is being replaced by that of media as a vehicle for advertising revenue. In a situation where the goal is to maximise profits, reportage that requires critical engagement or dwells on the acute struggles of the majority of our population is unsuited to the demands of the advertiser, since the latter is based on generating an appropriate ambience for a culture of consumption. The result is that an increasingly complex world is being covered in simplistic two-tones or not being reported at all. Even critical independent reporting, where it exists, is confined by national or a nationalistic perspective. This approach views the well-being of the people interchangeably with the well-being of the government and the so-called ‘realpolitik’ perspective supplants comprehensive critical analysis.
The limitations of this have never been more apparent as the region slides towards greater inequities, growing injustices and greater curbs on democratic rights. Growing disparities in income, skewed labour rights, increasing use of the security apparatus of the state in clamping down on democratic space and the erosion of our natural environment are issues that are barely reported or are viewed as events from the distant platform of a spectator culture. Our countries are moving towards delusionary politics where confrontation and violence both within and across borders is seen as an advancement, where pyrrhic victories in the zero-sum game are being presented as substantive progress.
The nation-state provides us all with a sense of location and equips us with the legislative framework that underpins modern citizenship. Himal Southasian (hereafter Himal) does not defy this identity of citizenship but emphasises that every individual has more than one identity and it includes a Southasian one. It seeks to bring a different perspective, one that is perhaps best encapsulated in our ‘right-side up’ map which seeks to jolt the viewer into realising that there is always another view that contradicts popular or populist conceptions. The magazine has sought to generate awareness of the enmeshed nature of our lives and our futures: One country’s decision to build a river embankment results in flooding in another, your country’s acute poverty is leading to undocumented migration into hers, social injustice in his area spills into nihilistic violence in his neighbouring country and my nuclear bomb guarantees our mutual annihilation. In looking at the region’s interwoven dilemmas and opportunities Himal has dissented from the mainstream approach which ends at the border. It is also unapologetically political.
At a time tensions are being ratcheted up across Southasia with incitements to war and where the ideology of a neoliberal economy seeks to bury stark economic data on the lives of the majority of our population, the need for fact-based reporting cannot be over emphasised. Whether it is the coverage of disasters where Himal eschewed episodic reportage for a volume on lessons learnt from the region, or its mapping of labour rights when economic reporting has become synonymous with corporate reporting, or our attention on the Rohingya crisis at a time when global media focus was on uncritical adulation of Aung San Suu Kyi, Himal has often been ahead of the curve, shedding light on Southasia’s dark corners. We have produced consistent reportage on Kashmir and Balochistan, drawn attention to the increasing militarisation of large parts of ‘democratic’ Southasia and are probably the only magazine to provide consistent critical coverage of the Maldives and Bhutan.
Himal has never relied on polemical discourse to make its point. The magazine’s work ethic is rooted in its belief that substantive issues require exploration through rigorous professionalism. Himal’s Southasian-ness is not the outcome of a romanticised view of cross-border friendship but well-researched reportage and analysis. It is not arguments that it offers but argumentation, not nostalgia but hard facts. It also works on the principle that substantive issues of concern to the lives and livelihoods of Southasian peoples should be covered through writing that is lively, engaging and interesting. Himal uses poetry and fiction, analysis and reportage, commentary, interview and essays to do so. Its long-form journalism and an exhaustive editorial process (which contributing writers will call exhausting!) seek to make subjects traditionally dismissed as boring content of do-gooder media into compelling reading.
The magazine has both challenged and supported journalists throughout the region, forcing many of us to take a critical look at our own work and pushing us to produce better work through the editorial process and provided a platform for many of the stories that do not get published elsewhere. That the magazine’s perspective has robust support within the region is palpable not just from those who have read it for 29 years but also from the significant section of writers who wish to be published in its pages, many of them journalists who find no outlet for the extra-national perspective in the media of their own country.
Himal’s willingness to look beyond the borders however, also makes it unpopular, and not just with the rapacious regimes in our region. In a time where nationalism and patriotism are enclosed by ‘narrow domestic walls’, an expansive view is suspect, with a significant section of public opinion retreating to knee-jerk jingoism in the face of crises of livelihood, identity and increasing injustices. It is perhaps this that has made it easier for Himal’s operation to be shut down, without almost a whimper in its own backyard.
The means used to silence Himal are not straightforward but nor are they unique. Throughout the region one sees increasing use of regulatory means to clamp down on freedom of expression, whether it relates to civil-society activists, media houses, journalists or human-rights campaigners. Direct attacks or outright censorship are becoming rarer as governments have begun to fear the backlash of public protests. Strangulation, through the use of bureaucracy, is gaining ground and has several obvious advantages. Since the attack is on an organisation or an individual rather than on the content published or the campaign being waged, it is not viewed as an attack on freedom of expression and therefore garners far less support. Since such an attack allows the government to use its vast machinery, few organisations or individuals can withstand the pressure as none has the resources to sustain a long-drawn out feud with the authorities.
Even if the object of the attack is cleared of any wrongdoing, at the end of it all, the process itself becomes the punishment and achieves the desired result of squashing the organisation or person. Tehelka magazine was the subject of such intense investigations following its sting on then Defence Minister George Fernandes. Ultimately, it had to fold and was re-launched years later. Tax investigations into Kashmiri journalist Iftikhar Gilani’s finances began soon after a sustained campaign by journalists forced the government to drop the case it had registered against him under the Official Secrets Act. One of the most outspoken critic of the Gujarat massacres, Teesta Setalvad in Mumbai, is being investigated on her financial probity. If the investigation is linked to an ostensible financial irregularity, it ensures that the targeted individual will receive very little support since it is difficult, even for supporters, to be aware of the details of an individual’s or organisation’s finances. Even more sophisticated is how regulatory mechanisms are being used against a slew of organisations working on the issue of rights, where withholding permission is sufficient to curb their activities.
Existing support structures whether for independent media or for media organisations under attack have not caught up with these realities. There are robust mechanisms for the safety of individual journalists and even financial support for media-in-exile from totalitarian regimes. However, much of the concentration is on removing the individual under attack to a place of safety and very few that enable her to stay in place and continue to work. Support structures are loath to come to the aid of organisations if there is a whiff of financial investigation. Even though there is now a fairly well-documented pattern of insidious attacks of this kind, supportive bodies would rather wait for the organisation in question to be cleared than do their own homework to determine whether the investigation is warranted or a covert attack to muzzle freedom of expression.
In the case of Himal or its publisher the non-profit South Asia Trust, neither entity is even under investigation. On the tenuous link that the Chairman of the Trust, Kanak Mani Dixit, is under investigation, permission for us to use grants and obtain work permits for non-Nepali staff was being withheld. The lengthy process of this denial – we had applied in January 2016 for the permission to use a secured grant and in December 2015 for the work permit, effectively diminished our ability to function as an organisation till the point of paralysis. While the case against Dixit is itself contentious and currently sub-judice, Himal has not been intimated by any authority that it is under any kind of scrutiny. On the contrary, regulatory officials inform us informally that we have fulfilled every requirement of law and procedure, but cite political pressure for their inability to process our requests. Our finances are audited independently and the audit report, financial statements, bank statements and financial reporting are submitted to the Nepal government’s regulatory bodies as well as to the donors.
Unlike other organisations, the test of a media organisation lies in its published content which is publicly available. Himal’s editorial team has complete independence and a forensic examination of our content would prove our commitment to public-service journalism. Yet we find ourselves being penalised, neither told what, if any, misstep we have taken, nor told what process we can pursue, while our ability to operate is hindered with no explanation.
The forced long march
The decision to suspend has not been taken hastily. Himal has faced similar attacks in the recent past. In April 2014, our main funder, the Norwegian Embassy in Nepal, was accused by MPs from the UCPN Maoist and the Nepali Congress of promoting anti-peace activities by funding Himal. Though the allegations could not be taken seriously, and Himal’s content and administrative financial systems stood up to all forms of scrutiny, the repeated attacks have made it difficult for us to work and get support, especially within Nepal’s donor community which obviously would like to maintain a distance from anything controversial. It has also made regulatory authorities wary of us. The need to address charges, however tendentious, has also repeatedly stretched the resources of our small editorial and administrative team.
What is particularly frustrating to the all of us at Himal is that this forced closure has come at a time when the magazine had stabilised and was gaining institutional momentum after a few financially shaky years, not just through readership and an increased circle of contributors but in the form of supportive grants and staff of exceptional calibre eager to work with us. The suspension is taking place at a time when we were growing, increasing the quality and quantity of our output, expanding our readership and generating more revenue.
While the magazine could be faulted for its reliance on donor funding, in so far that this has made it susceptible to the whims of political powers that be, Himal itself has been acutely aware of its vulnerability, which also comes from the erratic nature of donor funding. We have made a concerted effort to increase revenues through membership, increased subscriptions, sale of copies of the bookazines through bookshops and in a digital format while exploring other avenues suited to its content. Even our decision to continue publishing in the print format was based on pragmatism. Southasians are not paying for online content yet.
However, while we continued to work towards self-sustainability we are also acutely aware that Himal operates within an environment where independent media face an uphill road. The stark reality is that the consumer of media, while demanding that it be independent, is unwilling to pay for it and largely happy with it being subsidised by the corporate world. Media, globally, is engaged in a struggle to secure user payment, but this is a goal that is still in the far distance, especially so, in our region. Could a commercial enterprise have ensured greater security? The region is rife with accounts of advertisers pulling out or stories being ‘spiked’ because of advertiser pressure.
Interestingly, while many see donor funding as a ‘foreign’ role in media, some governments in the region allow foreign direct investment – foreign ownership – in private media while withholding permission for grants for non-profit media. The logic is difficult to understand, but perhaps it is based on the notion that commercially-driven media has a profit motive that will keep it from being too critical? The impetus for quantity over quality is certainly a factor that hinders in-depth journalism.
Himal does not employ a roster of writers, contributors or correspondents. The journalists on our staff comprise only a small editorial team that edits articles. Each article is commissioned individually. While this makes our editorial process challenging, it makes for richer reading, and gives access to a wider variety of opinions and expert voices. All of this has been made possible by an enormously dedicated and diverse group of colleagues who have worked with Himal over the years, each group leaving its own imprint on the magazine’s identity. To be at Himal they have often given up, not just ‘better’ jobs but also far better salaries. Very often this has meant working long hours, with inadequate infrastructure, doubling up in several roles to stretch the resources of an under-staffed organisation. Despite this, the small Kathmandu-based team has not just managed to harness the talent of reporters and writers across the globe but also managed to spread the idea of Himal far beyond Southasia. That Himal’s content is required reading in many academic courses on Southasian history, politics and geography, is a testament to the work put in by all our colleagues over nearly three decades.
It is this commitment to the idea of Himal, from those working in its office, those writing for it, often for modest remuneration, those supporting us with subscriptions or simply reading the magazine that makes it impossible that the magazine will not re-launch, perhaps in another Southasian city, perhaps inventing another format for itself. Himal has been a labour of love based on a fierce professional commitment and all those associated with it, not just its current team, are engaged in the task of its revival. That this is not going to be easy goes without saying, but the very idea of Himal has been against the grain of conventional and commercial wisdom, a defiant cry against the odds. The very reasons that have contributed to the crisis at Himal make it imperative that it should survive.
~ Aunohita Mojumdar is the Editor of Himal Southasian.