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
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.