HIGHLIGHTS

  • In 1984, Koirala established the Nepal Press Institute where he introduced beginning and mid-career journalists not only to new skills but also to professional ethics and standards and to the role of the media as a public watchdog.
  • In 1985, he helped form the Nepal Forum for Environmental Journalists, to foster in-depth reporting on the country’s environment.
  • After Nepal’s democratic revolution in 1990, Koirala brought information to the rural masses by encouraging small cities and towns to put up their own newspapers and led the Press Institute to set up branches to train countryside reporters.
  • The RMAF Board of Trustees recognizes “his developing professional journalism in Nepal and unleashing the democratizing powers of a free media.”

 CITATION

Until the 1950s, Nepal’s hereditary rulers held the kingdom in isolation from the rest of the world. Afterwards, the country opened slowly and, until today, many of Nepal’s people remain scattered in thousands of rural villages accessible only by footpath. Fewer than half can read. And only one in a hundred receives a newspaper. Altogether, poor soil for journalism! Yet Bharat Koirala, a journalist, has been tilling this stingy soil for nearly forty years. In doing so, he has made journalism a valuable component of his country’s belated awakening to modernity.

Born in 1942, Koirala was educated at Tribhuvan University in Katmandu and soon became a newspaperman. Rising Nepal, where he began, and its sister Nepali-language Gorakhapatra, were government organs. As Koirala rose eventually to lead the state-owned Gorakhapatra publishing house, he practiced “a heavy dose of self-censorship,” he admits. Even so, he managed to expand the domain of the press. He encouraged his young reporters to write good stories and shielded them when the results offended someone in power. And he steered them to cover Nepal’s economic development and its impact on the rural population. True, such stories were safe, but Koirala understood they were also important.

In 1984, Koirala established the Nepal Press Institute. In its workshops and courses, he introduced beginning and mid-career journalists not only to new skills but also to professional ethics and standards and to the role of the media as a public watchdog-laying the groundwork for an independent press in years to come. In 1985, he helped form the Nepal Forum for Environmental Journalists, to foster in-depth reporting on the country’s environment. Koirala linked both of these efforts to affiliated programs abroad, drawing Nepal’s rising journalists into important international dialogues.

After leaving Gorakhapatra in 1986, Koirala turned his attention to Nepal’s rural world, where fully half the districts had no access to national newspapers. To fill the gap, he began mounting huge billboard-style newspapers on walls in rural towns. With funding from the Agricultural Development Bank, these popular “wall newspapers” soon proliferated in Nepal’s remote hill districts.

When a democratic revolution overtook Nepal in 1990, Koirala played an important role in the transition to greater press freedom. Still impassioned about bringing information to the rural masses, he encouraged small cities and towns to put up their own newspapers and led the Press Institute to set up branches to train countryside reporters.

Increasingly, however, Koirala focused his hopes on radio. Radios, he noted, are cheap. They run on batteries or solar power and their signals can reach where power lines and delivery trucks cannot. Moreover, he says, the radio “transcends literacy.” Koirala made it his mission to promote locally owned and operated radio stations in rural Nepal. A dozen have succeeded. Meanwhile, leading a consortium of four NGOs, Koirala himself launched Sagarmatha, Nepal’s first private FM radio station. It offers music and public affairs programming and also takes in trainees-a true Koirala touch.

The urbane Koirala works quietly and always in concert with friends and colleagues. He excels at initiating projects and linking them to funders and then, as one friend puts it, letting them “thrive on their own.” Today, his impact reaches far and wide, from the country’s growing cadre of professional journalists to the wall newspapers posted across the hill districts. His diverse initiatives have a common thread. As Koirala says of community radio stations, they are “helping create a free, independent, and pluralistic media and promoting public debate in our democracy.”

In electing Bharat Koirala to receive the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his developing professional journalism in Nepal and unleashing the democratizing powers of a free media.

 RESPONSE

Madame President, Excellencies, President and Trustees of the Foundation, Distinguished Guests, Fellow Awardees, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is a great honour and privilege for me to be this year’s recipient of the prestigious Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts. I have, thus become the second Nepalese to be conferred this honour after 25 years. Soon after the Awards were announced I had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Mahesh Chandra Regmi who received the Award in the same category in 1977. Even though Dr. Regmi suffers from Parkinson’s disease, and partially paralysed, is confined to the wheel chair he expressed his deep appreciation of the honour conferred on him and his joy that another Nepali had received the award.

Even though I had some knowledge of the honour and prestige attached to the Ramon Magsaysay Award I could understand its full significance only when the awards were announced. The news arrived at a time when the country was looking for something positive in the midst of chaos and confusion. The Award was considered an honour not only to me or our journalist community but to the country itself.

Certainly, the Foundation deserves the appreciation of the Nepalese people for recognizing the positive achievements of a process started many years ago that finally has begun to bear fruit. The Nepalese media which suffered for over a century under various forms of autocratic rule finally emerged as a free and independent entity following the restoration of democracy in 1990. The media became more institutionalized, received massive investment in new technology, training of journalists was undertaken at an unprecedented level and media institutions undertook many innovative approaches to increase the flow of information to and from the rural areas. Nepal is a country of villages, 80 % of the 23 million people live in over 40,000 villages some of which are located in difficult mountainous regions. Isolated by mountains and valleys these villages are cut off from the various media of communication largely located in urban centres.

Through these new approaches that include wall newspapers put up on walls of public buildings and tea shops, audio towers that inform villagers in their own homes and radio stations that are owned and operated by rural communities, and tiny newspapers that are prized by neo-literates in remote villages are beginning to change lives and improve living conditions. A number of dedicated journalists and media organizations are at the forefront of this enterprise to provide media access to people living in far-flung areas.

We are grateful to the Foundation for recognizing this silent revolution in a remote part of the world. I am sure the award will draw more attention of the government, civil society, the private sector and the international community to what is happening in Nepalese villages. We hope that these efforts will bring about positive changes in our villages that at the moment seem remote to many. The Award has raised the morale of a society that have fallen into despondency.

I wish once again to thank you for the Award and its impact on Nepalese society. It should also provide encouragement to the younger generation of journalists to become involved in enterprises that encourage selfless devotion to the welfare of ordinary people.

Thank you.

 BIOGRAPHY

The odds against using the mass media for any meaningful purpose in Nepal are daunting. Two-thirds of the country is made up of mountains, so a mere third of the land is arable. The result is low productivity, with the gross national product (GNP) per capita amounting to only U.S.$1,370. Yet, these mountains as well as plateaus are home to nine out of every ten Nepalis who have built their villages here. Man-made problems such as erosion and deforestation are common.

Information and education through the mass media can help promote development among these people, but there is yet another obstacle: only six out of every ten Nepali men, and less than three out of every ten Nepali women, are literate. Even if the more common forms of mass media such as newspapers could penetrate this difficult terrain, the contents would be meaningless to most of the people.

But, Bharat Dutta Koirala, a Nepali journalist, has found innovative ways to hurdle most of these obstacles and to provide rural Nepalis with the information and education that they need. The fifth in a family of seven (four sisters and three brothers), Koirala was born in Kathmandu on February 3, 1942, to a couple who had no formal schooling. Both parents taught themselves to read and write in Nepali. His father, Ram Dutta Koirala, even wrote poetry and published a book of poems. His mother, Heramba Kumari, could read books and write letters to him and his siblings. Ram Koirala was the son of a landlord from the Gurkha district in western Nepal who moved to Kathmandu. Heramba Kumari was born in Kathmandu and grew up in a predominantly Newar area, inhabited by the royal city’s majority population.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)