How to publish succesfully and safe in a dangerous environment. This handout tells of the lessons Center for investigative journalism in Nepal has learned.
METODE: Nepal has been facing the most serious violent internal conflict for last eight years. In the conflict initiated by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), more than seven thousand people-innocent people, policemen, armymen and the Maoist's fighters lost their life.
After the Maoists broke peace-talk in mid-November 2001, the government declared the State of Emergency on 26 November 2001 which lasted for nine months.
The state of emergency brought very conducive environment for the abuse of human rights. On the one hand, it suspended basic human rights by disallowing people to knock the door of the court. On the other hand, it gave immense power to the security forces. When the security forces are given such power and the court doesn't hear the cases of the human rights abuse it's sure that such power is misused, innocents get abused, tortured, raped and killed.
During such time, the role of media is far greater than its role during the normal situation. It should make additional efforts to safeguard the basic human rights. Keeping this role in mind Kathmandu based Centre for Investigative Journalism initiated two programmes Emergency Watch and Food Watch. These two programmes were carried out during the state of emergency and immediately after it was lifted.
The first programme supported by the International Media Support did not have an ambitious goal. It has focused on the review of the performance of Nepali media during the first six months of the state of emergency and on the production of five print stories on human rights abuse by both sides-state and the Maoists. The second programme was to look at the conflict-induced food scarcity in the hills of far western Nepal. It aimed at producing one print story, one radio and video documentary each.
Naturally, during the state of emergency the press, too, had many (too many if the rulers are not careful) limitations. Even though, you produce very good, standard stories it's likely that your story doesn't reach your audience. CIJ which doesn't have a single media outlet was to face huge problems to get its stories published/broadcast during the state of emergency and undeclared state of emergency which followed the declared state of emergency.
CIJ, to some extent, overcome the problems of getting the stories disseminated. It, however, failed in getting its widely acclaimed video documentary broadcast. This paper tries to share the tools and techniques CIJ used while trying to disseminate the story it produced and its failures. (This paper doesn't deal with the problems CIJ faced while collecting information as the subject is being discussed separately during the conference).
Selection of media
We carefully selected the media for the publication of stories. This had been proved important for two reasons. First, to spread the message as wide as possible. Since we had invested much creative energy and resources on our stories we tried to ensure that the stories reach wider audience. If your story is read by the large number of people more people are likely to follow the issues you have raised.
Second, to ensure the safety of the journalists who produced the stories. Thula gharako kukurko thulai chala. Nepali army often cited this proverb while expressing their anger at and inability to take any action to the "uncomfortable" journalists as they belong to the powerful media house. The proverb means that the dog's strength is not determined by individual strength but by the strength of the house it belonged to.
We had got Mritu bhanda kathor sajaya, a story on the 17 construction workers who were killed and branded as "terrorist" by the Nepali army published in Himal Khabarpatrika during the state of emergency. By any Nepali standard, the story had elements that demoralised the security forces but no action was taken against us and the publisher/editor. The only reason is that the media house was powerful. We couldn't think of publishing the story in less influential media.
Selection of languages
Nepal is in unique position with more than 62 languages spoken by its 23 million people. However, two languages Nepali and English language are regarded powerful media. If you write in Nepali you reach lower-middle and lower class urban, semi urban and rural masses which take time to react (sometimes, you feel no reaction at all). And if you write in English, you are sure to reach urban, high and high-middle class Nepali elite, diplomats and development industry managers who have much more influence on Nepali polity than "sovereign" Nepalis. Your issues are likely to be picked up by international rights organisations.
Our story Mritu bhanda kathor sajaya was first published in Nepali language. Later on, Unfriendly fire, the English and shorter version of the story was published in the Nepali Times. It has got the attention of different kind of people who are more vocal and active.
Similarly, our stories on the food scarcity in western Nepal's hill and eight villagers (some of them were member of the anti-Maoist vigilant group) killed by the army appeared first in Nepali media. Later on, they were published in English language. We have got different actions from the stories in different languages.
Combination of different medium
If you use multi-media (print, tv, web, radio etc.) approach you are more likely to be heard by every people. Different medium has different advantages (disadvantages also). For example, we couldn't narrate the situation in word when a young man stopped speaking for 20 seconds while he was talking about his 60-year-old father killed by an army.
To exploit the power of different medium we took a video camera with us when we went to collect information for our story Mritu bhanda kathor sajaya. We came back with 10 hours of impressive visuals, sound bytes and silence. The materials were so powerful that we produced The Living of Jogimara, a 38 minute video documentary though we had neither plan nor budget for that.
And when we used that silence in our video documentary it compelled people to share the young man's suffering.
And, in the case of story on food scarcity, we produced not only print story both in English and Nepali language but also video and radio documentary.
Web sites are very useful in disseminating stories. When the above stories were posted on webstie they were read by those who couldn't get hard copy because they live far from Nepal.
When we were planning for the story on 17 workers killed by army we discussed with the editor of Himal Khabarpatrika who promised to buy our story and gave us three pages of his news magazine. His condition was: the story must be good.
We went to the field to collect information. When we returned from the field we informed the editor on the materials we have collected. He was so excited that he killed a story to give us two more pages. Two days later when we discussed with him on the possible outline of the story he dumped the cover story which was nearly completed and gave our story cover treatment. The story thus got promotion from a three-page report to a 10 page-cover story.
Reason: the story emphasized not on how the army killed the workers but on the impact of the massacre on the family members. The story did not narrate the war but the human tragedy which easily holds the audience.
We learnt a lesson from our own work that if you put human face in your story chances of the story being published are far greater. If you emphasis on the impact audience automatically will get angry at the wrongdoers.
Selection of words
Unlike many stories appeared in Nepali media, the story on the workers tried to avoid explicit allegations on the army. We tried to avoid strong, provocative words. Our lesson is: if the story itself is stronger you don't have to (mis) use the strong word in which case you are likely to be hit back or taken to the court.
Share your materials with others
We also learnt a lesson that If don't have any option to get the information you have collected disseminated you have to share it with those who can do so.
We reached a village in far western Nepal the next day the army gunned down eight people. A man who had got two bullets on his head died just some minutes ago we reached there. The dead bodies of other the six men who died on the spot about 30 hours ago were just sent to the river bank for final rites. The body of a tall man who was dragged away and finally killed by the army could not be taken back to the traditional crematorium.
The whole village was shocked with the death of so many people in a single day. We captured the event, people's anger, villagers' detail account of how they were killed and the condition of the widows and orphans. Though we published the story in print media in Nepali and English language it was impossible for us to get the video reports transmitted. We shared the footage with Kathmandu based BBC's correspondent who used it to produce a mini-documentary along with his own footage of the Maoists atrocity.
Keeping the story alive
Another lesson we learnt is: Keep the story alive, get the story told repeatedly until you get the desired results. It may be a follow-up by yourself or by your friend. In case of the story of the workers, we first published story in Nepal which created ripples in Nepali society. This was followed by the flow of letter to the editor. Then it was the English version of the story again followed by the letter to editor.
The story invited actions by the Nepalis living in the Washing DC, US who collected some money and send it to the shocked families who lost their bread winner. This event again gave us a chance to update our reader on the story so that they don't forget the issue.
Bichalit Bartaman (Disillusioned present), an informal group of writers, journalists, fine and play artists organised a programme to protest widespread human rights violation during the state of emergency. The artists produced paintings on the spot. Photogrphs that dealt with the violence were put on exhibition. The photographs and paintings were auctioned. The proceeds went to the families of the workers. This was widely covered by the media.
The video documentary which was produced almost four months later also gave an opportunity for the press to keep this issue alive. The documentary was selected for the screening at the Kathmandu International Mountain Film Festival. The documentary was screened to the journalists at the press conference organised on eve of the festival.
When the film was premiered at the festival it was reviewed by the media. The review of the film by major daily newspaper the next day invited huge crowd to request for the repeat screening. Here again, we had to face problem of screening it to the public. The film was scheduled to be a concluding film of the festival. The government tried to stop its screening. To avoid the physical confrontation between the huge and angry crowd and the government forces we made a compromise-- fade out the narration for 30 seconds.
The trick was a temporary success. The next day the government put a public notice saying that film festivals require government approval and every film to be screened must be censored by the government.
We have not been able to overcome this hurdle. We would like to know from you how we can overcome such problems.
For more information on the print story, post production script and review of the video documentary and other activities of CIJ please visit our webiste: www.himalassociation.org.
This paper has been prepared for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, May 1-4, 2003, Copenhagen, Denmark.