Nepal: Madhesi youths launch initiative to combat discrimination in the Nepali media
Aashu has witnessed first-hand the skewed portrayal of ethnic Madhesis in the mainstream Nepali media. Last year his father, a journalist with the Kathmandu-based daily Himalayan Times was dispatched to cover a rally by separatist leader CK Raut in their home town Birgunj, near the Indian border. When Raut was arrested by the authorities, the protest turned violent.
“Demonstrators were throwing rocks on policemen and policemen were beating protesters,” recalls Aashu. “He clicked pictures of a policeman beating a protester and a protester beating a policeman and sent [them] to his newspaper.”
The next day the newspaper ran an abrasive story accusing protesters alone of instigating the violence. They only used one photo: it showed a protester hitting a police officer with a bike helmet.
“My father called to complain to his editor,” explains Aashu, sitting outside a colourful Hindu temple in Birgunj on a cold January morning. “The same night a petrol bomb was hurled on our house.”
The family made several phone calls to various departments in the Birgunj police force, which like most state institutions in Nepal is dominated by upper-caste hill peoples. Nobody came.
It was this incident that sparked Aashu, a 22-year-old student, and his friends to set up a Facebook page, the State Daily, to share accurate news from the troubled region from a Madhesi perspective. The aim was to counter the spread of stereotypes and misinformation about their community. In September, they launched an English-language website and by January they just had opened their own office, a two-room space sparsely filled with a single desk and a desktop computer. At the moment, the team of five is squeezing in reporting between their studies and day jobs. But they hope to one day turn it into a full-time living.
According to Pushkar Mathema, Editor-in-Chief of the Gorkhaptra Daily and an ethnic Newari, Nepal’s minorities and indigenous communities are egregiously under-represented in the mainstream media. Madhesis make up less than seven percent of personnel at community radio stations, despite constituting roughly a quarter of the country’s population. At the Gorkhapatra Daily there are only two Madhesis compared to 36 staff members representing the Brahmin/Chhetri hill groups. As a result, minority and indigenous issues are often misrepresented or ignored, he explains.
Madhesis, an ethnic minority occupying the southern Terai plains in Nepal, have endured decades of state-backed discrimination and legal exclusion. Until a decade ago, many were deprived of land ownership and full citizenship rights, entrenching the political domination of the Kathmandu-based elite. The Terai is one of the most impoverished areas in the country, lacking proper infrastructure, hospitals and universities, despite being rich in agrarian and natural resources. Much of this exclusion is rooted in elitist attitudes towards the culturally and linguistically distinct minority.
Bouts of unrest have continued to wrack the region since the end of Nepal’s ten-year Maoist insurgency in 2006 and resurfaced last year when the government pushed through a controversial new constitution that critics say marginalizes minority rights. It culminated in violent street protests that cost over fifty lives and prompted Madhesis to impose a four and a half month trade blockade near the Indian border, cutting off 70 percent of the landlocked country’s imports. The blockade devastated Nepal’s economy as it struggled to recover from last year’s deadly earthquakes.
The value of independent and accurate reporting was once again thrown into the limelight. The mainstream media’s portrayal of the unrest cast most of the blame on the protesters, says Aashu, despite evidence of human rights violations and deadly police violence against unarmed Madhesis.
“I had some friends in Kathmandu and foreign countries and they used to ask me ‘What’s happening? I read the Himalayan Times and the Republican they are saying one thing and you are saying another. We are so confused’,” he adds.
Aashu and his friends hope that the State Daily will be able to counter some of the harmful narratives that portray Madhesis as ‘trouble-makers’ and ‘foreigners’ in the Nepali media. But he knows that it will be an uphill battle.
Even his journalist father has advised caution. “He thinks that it’s not a job that will earn [much] money and there are always life threats in this job,” says Aashu. “He wants me to become an engineer.”
Photo: A Madhesi woman whose husband was killed by police during last year's protests stands in her teashop (Hanna Hindstrom)