Under The Siege

There are days for soul searching. Days, when you question yourself if the path you chose was right or wrong. Days when you question, what would it be like had you chosen some other path? This is perhaps one of those days. Or perhaps it isn’t.

I could not sleep well last night, after coming home late, and despite having to go to office early – in the wee hours. Guess many would not have slept well last night. Least sleepy of all would have been King Gyanendra. Probably thinking, how to handle. Perhaps questioning, can he go all the way. Perhaps, he is assured that he can deliver.

It was a long day, as the Royal proclamation was followed by halt in telephone services. Land line doesn’t work, cell phone shows no network. I charged my phone to full battery, after coming home last night. It might sound weird, charging a phone in absence of a network. But, it’s an emotional issue for me. I would continue to keep it on, to remind myself that my state doesn’t trust me. Does NOT trust a bona fide citizen. Who trusts me then? Does that make me, almost a stateless citizen?

Former King Gyanendra Shah. A story of what could have been. Image source: web
Former King Gyanendra Shah. A story of what could have been. Image source: web

Choosing journalism as a career was a coincidence, for I was not really trained for that. A business student, jumped into the world of letters, and not into the world of balance sheets. Yet I hoped that the career was right for me, for I – a faceless commoner – had a chance to become their representative. To begin with, it was infatuation with the term – Right to Information – that had made me take it up. The infatuation may have worn out a bit, with passage of half a decade in the profession, yet the belief that people should have a right to express their ideas is there. A right to speak; A right to demand; A right to fear nobody, if you haven’t harmed anyone.

Fear… It has different connotations for different people. For some of my colleagues, it is the presence of armed militarymen in army fatigue; at their workplace (they express it in whispers). For me, they (the armymen) are just doing their work, carrying out the orders that have come their way. For me, the fear is that we’re being directed. Directed on Do’s and Don’ts of News. The Freedom of Expression is being monitored by an organization that knows less about freedom and more about control. I fear that. I fear that it could become a precedent for times to come, no matter who comes to power tomorrow. Time changes and no regime is permanent – as history has shown – yet the fear is: would the organization that’s supposed to safeguard the nation become involved in controlling it? Yes, I’m talking about the army.

I have no qualms about the persons – led by a Major – who’ve come to reside in our office compound. Their leader is polite. Hasn’t talked aggressively with anyone so far (some saving grace!). I know it’s a state of emergency and it’s only the second day. We’re yet to know how far it will go, or to what extent. We’ve joked a lot about the King’s appearance on the telly, and how our newscasters would have done it differently, and most certainly, better. Jokes on his delivery, his dress (unlike our anchors who wear tie and no Nepali topi), and how he could have moved his head a bit, rather than keeping it still during the proclamation. There have been numerous moments of laughter in past two days, yet we all feel the environment is tense.

Yesterday was confusion, today it did not lessen. Personally, it was more frustrating.

Early morning today, before the 7’o clock news, I needed to get all the news approved from Major Saab (I don’t know his name and neither do I want to, for he is a symbol of control to me). Apparently, he was sleeping (or at least wasn’t out of bed). I waited for a couple of minutes, till he came to face me and check the news. A man from force, he showed his discipline and apologized several times to me, for not being awake. Though his gesture was respectable, the fact that a man in uniform checks and approves my news did not go down too well. I haven’t told anyone about it, but it hasn’t sunk in yet. Maybe a few days of army presence in Kantipur will tone me down, make me accept the authority. Despite his best efforts not to intimidate me, news started two minutes late (than normal time). Furious I was. Not with the army officer. But at helplessness of the community I belonged to – the media; the fourth estate, as they say.

Daytime was spent with colleagues, jokes continued. Humour becomes your best friend during the worst of times.

But the incident during the late night news has left a mark on me that perhaps I’d never be able to forget. As I begun television career, when Kantipur TV was yet not on air, we spent a lot of time practicing. Writing reports, making reports, playing with visuals was the way time was spent. Used to discuss on what words to use, while writing. My then boss Binod Bhattarai had told me, “Use the word ‘Maoists’ to name them, and not rebels or insurgents, because that’s what they call themselves. Rebels or insurgents are loaded words.”

Ever since, I’d followed it.

But today I learnt something I was not ready to. We had a statement from Army’s Public Information Directorate, with a heading “….. terrorists killed by the army” (in Nepali). The incident had happened a few days ago.  With barely a few minutes to go on air, I expressed my objection to Tirtha Koirala, my boss (Chief of News). “I’m not ready to write the word terrorists”, I said. He did not have a choice and I was convinced (?) not to replace the term by ‘Maoists’.

And my news read, “The statement from Nepal Army’s Public Information Directorate has said that it killed …. terrorist in an operation in …..”

And as I read it, I did not feel good. In past two years and a half (since Kantipur TV started), I’ve had chance to read many a news of death, successes and what not but none had affected me this way. I was on a mass media today, and I was taking sides. Not voluntarily, yet doing it nonetheless.

It’s difficult to say how long it – stay of the armymen at our offices as well as screening of the news – will continue. Nor am I able to fathom how the new system promised (we’re yet to know what) will function. Yet, what I know
for now is: I will continue to charge my cell phone every day, if needs be, to keep it on at all times (with twice-a-day alarm). The lack of network and ringing on alarm twice-a-day will remind me that my state does not trust me – it’s own citizen. And as of now, I’m not even fighting it.

Several rights have been suspended during emergency. However, can the state take away my right to remain silent, or to write in my diary?

(Note: This is an elaborated version (slightly) of what yours truly wrote on 2nd February, 2005 (the day next to then King Gyanendra’s takeover of executive powers), in his diary. 7 years on, it still gives him jitters. As the political parties try to woo and shoo the media (time and again), yours truly is reminded of that day. The latest decision of government distributing proportional advertisement to media has made him feel almost similarly. In-Dependent Media, don’t we have?)

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