CIVICUS speaks to Aunohita Mojumdar the editor of Himal Southasian, a review magazine of politics and culture based in Nepal and run by the not-for-profit Southasia Trust. Aunohita Mojumdar speaks on the suspension of the magazine from publishing and freedom of expression in the region. She has spent 25 years reporting from parts of South Asia. Before arriving in Kathmandu in 2012, Mojumdar was based in Kabul, Afghanistan for eight years as a freelancer. She is currently working for the re-launch of the suspended magazine
1. Please tell us about Himal Southasian and what makes it unique?
Himal is unique in a number of ways. It has a regional outlook, covering the whole of Southasia; it functions as a bridge between academia and journalism by making in-depth reporting and research accessible to a wider audience; and it challenges the jingoism and ultra-nationalism that obstructs a clear-eyed view of the region and its challenges.
Though the South Asian region has strong independent media outlets, reportage and analysis are invariably dominated by the national perspective, whether it is in the selection of issues the media covers or the manner in which issues are reported. The hostile rhetoric strengthens the confrontational postures based on jingoism rather than fact-based discourse and debate. As evident in the coverage of Indo-Pak issues. Reporting is also overwhelmingly event-based reporting and Himal has been unique in the kind of context it provides, thus answering the critical question of journalism that is often ignored – the why.
Though significant path-breaking scholarship exists in the region, much of this remains confined to academic texts which remain inaccessible to a wider audience because of stilted jargon or language. Himal seeks to bring this scholarship into the public domain on the premise that informed debate and discourse is a necessary element of democracy.
Despite the rise of ultra-nationalism, most media are unwilling to undertake critical reporting on this issue for fear of being branded as being anti-national. Himal’s contribution in this of expanding the scope for debate and discourse on this is well-established, a recent example being the controversy over Himal’s signature map. (See map is pictured above. Readers note, the map is rotated intentionally by the editors of Himal to reconceptualise regionalism and put a focus on people and not nation-states).
2. Himal Southasian has been forced to cease its operations due to bureaucratic reasons. Could you shed some light as to what happened?
Small organisations are sometimes challenged by the lack of money, staff, professionalism or administrative weaknesses. It is worth mentioning that Himal has met all these challenges and risen above them. The magazine’s suspension in November 2016 was caused by a new but growing expression of intolerance which uses bureaucracy to silence individuals and organisations which are troublesome to regimes, governments and states.
Often this tactic is through investigations, never-ending and ambiguous, and it is the process rather than the outcome which kills. In the case of Himal the method was even simpler. Himal was never investigated nor even questioned. The simple expedient of withholding permission for us to use our grants and to secure work visas for our staff as well as a slow-down of other regulatory processes paralysed our functioning.
These methods clearly work much better than direct censorship or attacks, both because there is no obvious attack and it is long drawn and because it is nearly impossible to mobilise public opinion on it. The low-level but high-value attrition of these methods is making them an increasingly popular form of clamping down on civil society.
3. How would you characterise the environment for civil society in Nepal? Is freedom of expression respected?
As a non-Nepali I cannot hope to speak to the entirety of the situation in Nepal but our experience suggests that there is a high degree of self-censorship. Very few civil society groups spoke out on our behalf after the suspension and even some media organisations whose mandate is the protection of journalists have been reluctant to speak out, let alone other media outlets.
4. Are you hopeful about the future of freedom of expression in South Asia? Is it being respected at present?
Freedom of expression throughout Southasia is facing a major challenge and in fact our last issue published out of Nepal documents the shrinking space in almost the entire region with a few exceptions. There are multiple challenges to freedom of expression. We have increasingly intolerant governments, which are using direct or indirect means to curb media and civil society. We have vigilante groups who are carrying out violent attacks on writers and journalists who are either being actively encouraged by the governments or are encouraged by the impunity the government inaction offers.
Governments are also using more sophisticated methods of control detailed earlier. In fact the challenge to Himal has made us aware of the extent of control exercised on routine functions. There is nothing, for example, in the rules and procedures which force the Nepal government to either give permission or show cause why the permission is being withheld. We see similar actions against NGOs in India where a large number of organisations critical of the government are losing the permission to operate or losing the ability to accept grants. Many non-commercial organisations rely on grants for their function and the reasons to deny them the permission appears arbitrary, linked not to their performance but to their perceived opposition to the government.
Even where media are not directly attacked, the corporatisation of media has led to media reporting more and more on selective subjects catering to audiences with purchasing power. As media emerge more as carriers for advertising they are required to create a feel-good audience for their readers, leaving out the vast majority of the citizens who do not have the purchasing power to drive advertising spend.
Self-censorship is being exercised by the media to avoid any confrontation that could damage the corporate interests while the profit motive of media companies has taken away resources from the actual task of journalism.
While the trends in Southasia are not very different from global trends, the weak rule of law and poor governance in Southasian countries poses additional challenges and is a threat to the small number of independent outlets that exist.
5. How can international and regional civil society support you in carrying out your mandate?
With increasingly complex and sophisticated threats emerging to the survival of independent media, the support structures and strategies also need to evolve. While there are robust processes in place to provide safe havens to activists who are threatened, to relocate them in exile, there are few processes in place for supporting activists and organisations who wish to remain in situ and work. There are few processes to support organisations who may not be physically at risk but whose work is being threatened or compromised. There are absolutely no initiatives which are examining and questioning the new methodologies of attack where organisations and individuals are being targeted by financial investigations even though there is, by now, a pattern of such victimisation.
In our case for example it would have helped if there had been questions asked of the government on the refusal to process permissions. Indeed given the suspension of Himal and the closure of its offices in Nepal after nearly 30 years of public service journalism such questions could still be asked so that governments know they will be held accountable.
While Himal remains ready to resume its editorial work as soon as it is able, it is currently seeking to establish the administrative and financial structures that will allow it to function. Support that would enable this would be welcome.
About Himal: Himal Southasian, a review magazine of politics and culture, is the only regional magazine of its kind. Stretching from Afghanistan to Burma, from Tibet to the Maldives, this region of more than 1.4 billion people shares great swathes of interlocking geography, culture and history. Yet today neighbouring countries can barely talk to one another, much less speak in a common voice. For over three decades, Himal Southasian has strived to define, nurture, and amplify that voice.