Professor Parsuram Kharel
Senior Journalist, Nepal
Investigative reporting requires a high degree of skill, knowledge and contacts in addition to perseverance, hard work and constant support from colleagues in the newsroom.
In the history of this class of reporting, the Watergate reporting in the 1970s that led to the resignation of a re-elected president in the US comes into sharp focus for citation.
Notwithstanding an array of political pressures on news sources not to cooperate with The Washington Post and other newspaper reporters, the two Post reporters – Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein – became overnight stars across America and they handled the story with meticulous planning and considerable patience through ups and downs.
No blood was shed but a president fell—he was compelled to resign to avoid certain impeachment when his party members gave clear indications that they would back such initiatives.
‘That was not a bad news beat but a demanding assignment just the same.
A feat of investigative reportage is rare in Nepal.
Devastating detail, maintained by gripping nuggets of information that make a story interesting and insightful, is missing.
In other countries, too, many journalists working for reputed media do not take special initiatives to do in-depth reporting or investigative reporting.
Cirino (1974: 172) cites a survey of The Washington Post revealing that it devoted most of its attention to official proceedings, government information handouts and scheduled events.
The survey showed that only 5 percent of the stories in the newspaper were the “original” or “enterprising” type—stories resulting from the initiative of the newspaper itself.
In 1967, US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara commissioned a study on how the US came to get entangled in the war in Vietnam.
A Vietnam Task Force produced, in 47 volumes of documents, a history of the US involvement in the Vietnam War.
Daniel Ellsberg, a former official in the Defense Department, secretly copied what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers while still in government service.
He gave them to The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The government in the US moved the Supreme Court to prevent publication of the contents but the latter upheld their publication.
Not all stories end that way. Politicians are powerful people; so are business people and those involved in shady dealings.
Powerful people want to suppress news critical of their activities and performance.
They may even use violent methods through hired goons or assassins. Drug smugglers in Latin America are believed to be behind the killings of journalists in that part of the world.
It is also true that these drug dealers have political connections under whose protection they operate.
Investigative reports raise questions as to whether an initiative was ethically correct in conducting keyhole journalism or sneak journalism with prying eyes running riot.
Freedom of expression is to some groups merely an ideal at best and an obstruction to their activities at other times, especially when the media begin to probe questionable operations.
A high premium is paid for investigative reports exposing powerful individuals with pots of money and lots of clout over political leadership.
It also means grave risk for reporters who may lose life or limb. Covering strife, war and other conflicts is a risk-ridden proposition, as the number of journalists killed or injured annually even in this day and age indicates.
The Dawn (2009) carried a piece that first appeared in the Egyptian Gazetta and noted that foreign forces targeted the premises of the Al Jazeera satellite TV in Baghdad to curb its full coverage of the war crimes being committed against Iraqi civilians.
Information is the enemy of dictatorship, which claims to have a copyright over the conscience of the ruled and stage-manages reality A dead reporter, with a notebook in his hand; a murdered editor, with an unfinished article on his computer—these recurring images from some of the deadly datelines of the world carry within them the unsolicited martyrdom of journalism, the enduring battle-cry of the paranoid reality manager— “those who fight with their pens will die by the sword” (Indian Express 1996).
The Paris-based World Association of Newspapers shows press freedom under attack in every continent. Twenty-eight journalists and other media workers were killed in four months between December 2008 and May 2009.
In Iraq, 225 journalists and media workers were killed between 2003 and May 2009.
Journalists are also targeted as suspects doing intelligence work or exchanging notes with intelligence personnel.
This increases risks for professional journalists.
Journalists are constant critics of actions.
But they themselves could turn into being the object of criticism if they stepped out of line.
Nepali journalists came under heavy criticism from their own fraternity and outside in the summer of 2007 when Maoist-affiliated workers disrupted publication/distribution of newspapers at three major publishing houses in Kathmandu.
The workers demanded better working conditions.
When most large daily newspaper publishers in the private sector got together and denounced the disruptions, Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai wrote a piece in Naya Patrika: “Most intelligence agencies in the world depute their agents within and outside their countries in the guise (True to his claims, some years ago, lamenting the practice of American intelligence agencies paying journalists for “information” The New York Times demanded in vain: “The prohibition on paying accredited journalists for intelligence work should be absolute.
The same applies to issuing bogus press credentials to a covert agent.”).
Dr. Bhattarai cited a September report in Naya Patrika carrying a list of press accreditation cardholders working for Nepal’s intelligence department.
Actually, this has been going on since ages, including the years after 1990 when multiparty democracy was restored (Kharel 2008).
Editor of Sanghu weekly and former FNJ Vice-President Gopal Budhathoki was quoted in Naya Patrika as saying that more journalists in Nepal served foreign intelligence agencies than national agencies.
Nepalipatra weekly, in December 2007, quoted Santosh Sharma, publisher of the now-defunct Naya Sadak daily: “Eighty percent of (Nepali) journalists serve as faithful workers of political parties and intelligence agencies.”
As if to corroborate Sharma’s observation, Nepal Press Union’s Dhankuta chapter, at a function in March 2008, formally announced its active campaigning for the victory of constituent assembly candidates fielded by the Nepali Congress in the April 10, 2008 CA elections.
The state of media affairs was mentioned in the “Open Diary” column in Nepalipatra: “There is no longer any meaning in choosing FNJ leadership just to fill in the posts.
It is in need of a leadership in real earnest, rising above party ideology and exercising critical faculty.
Among its members are many dance girls working at restaurants, a member of National Human Rights Commission, leaders of employees’ and teachers’ organizations, Thamel’s tourism entrepreneur and NGO operators” (Kharel 2008).
Professional journalists prize investigative reports, even if they exact a lot of hard work and involve risks when criminals and powerful people are involved and want the news to be suppressed.
As Ann Moore, chief executive, Time Inc, America’s largest magazine company, stressed: “Real reporting takes time and money and effort” (The Economist 2009).
As Gamble and Watanabe (2004: 367) conclude, misinformation, exaggerations and lies in the mass media are often at the root of mass violence. In the 1930s and the 1940s, atrocities in Japan were all born of misinformation and propaganda.
That such fallacies were allowed to circulate was the direct result of complacent citizens and subjects who failed to take decisive action when lies became “news”.
Excerpts from the author’s book on Political Communication, Media, message and meaning published by SANGAM Institute. Thanks the distinguished author for permission: Ed. Upadhyaya.
–This article was published in the Telegraph Weekly/telegraphnepal.com a few years ago: Ed.