Between activism and journalism

Photos by Arthur Rhodes.

Nepalese journalist, blogger, activist Dinesh Wagle walks a fine line to fight for what he believes in

Monday, April 17, 2006

Read about Dinesh Wagle's Apr. 12 UCLA talk.

Los Angeles --- When he is not talking about politics or journalism, recounting stories of arrests and beatings suffered by pro-democracy demonstrators at the hands of the Nepalese police, or explaining how important a free and independent media is to a functioning democracy, Dinesh Wagle is smiling. It is a smile that is as disarming as it is contagious. Its simple ease might be confused with naiveté and its adolescent charm could even make you forget that you are looking into the face of one of Nepal's most prominent voices of dissent.

Wagle, who turned 27 in March, is the creator and primary editor of United We Blog! for a Democratic Nepal (UWB), a blogspot that has come into the spotlight since the Feb. 1, 2005 coup in which King Gyanendra dissolved the nation's parliament and declared himself the sole ruler of the Himalayan country. In order to quell the potential for a mobilized resistance, the king quickly shut down all forms of mass communication. When the lights came back on, the nation's newspapers and radio and television stations found military personnel in their offices demanding to vet all outgoing information. The only somewhat unregulated space that remained was the blogosphere, and Wagle's posts quickly became one of the only uncensored sources of information for a world eager to understand what was happening inside Nepal.

Wagle admits that his blog's popularity happened largely by accident. "I started a blog in 2003," he says. "I wrote a little about political issues, but it was all mostly personal. I would talk about the things that I was doing or what I was thinking about." A few days after the coup, however, Wagle and his friends changed their focus. They told themselves, "What the hell is the point of having this means of communication if we are not going to write about what people need to know? We can write about dating when we have our freedom back."

Wagle, who is also the coordinator of the Style and Arts page for Kantipur Daily, one of Nepal's largest newspapers, says that it was obvious that the King would shut down the nation's media. "It happens in every autocracy all over the world," he says, "and the press in Nepal is just too much a part of the political process to be ignored. People believe in the integrity of our media. They believe what they read or hear -- it shapes the way people think, the way that they behave."

A high proportion of Nepal's population live in underdeveloped rural areas and, even in Kathmandu, access to the Internet is still limited. Wagle does not think that his postings have much direct influence over the political culture inside Nepal, "but it is those outside the country that we are hoping to reach, those who can influence the influential people inside our own country," he says. "If Nepal is going to have its democracy it will need help from the world."

A few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a blogger to anticipate that his posts might somehow shape international politics. Wagle is now in the United States as a part of the Edward R. Murrow Fellowship, a State Department program that offers foreign journalists the opportunity to come to the United States to experience firsthand the relationship of the American press to its democracy. The program is by invitation only and Wagle does not know how he was selected. It most probably was not for his contributions to Style and Arts.

Recognizing the relatively unprecedented nature of his success, Wagle attributes the popularity and esteem in which his blog is held to the high standards of his site. "We know that because we are [publishing news in a] blog, people might question our credibility," he says. "But we know that somehow we have become a source of news, so we have a responsibility to print the truth. We may tell the stories in a more personal way, but we always make sure that what we are saying is a fact."

Navigating the line between the personal and the professional has become a high-wire act for reporters like Wagle, who see the struggle for democracy in Nepal as inextricably intertwined with their own fates.

"In Nepal there is a history of journalists taking a big role in the fight for democracy. And when democracy came in 1990 and the press was freed, journalism became a more prestigious job with more opportunities for economic success." Wagle says that the media was the fastest growing industry when his country was a democracy, but has already seen declines in growth since last year's coup. "Democracy means job security for us," he explains.
Economics, however, only played a partial role in Wagle's decision to become an activist: "When someone tells me what to write I am no different than a computer, a machine. Where is my dignity then? Part of a journalist's job is to identify the things that people need to know. That is our responsibility and it is a kind of power that we enjoy. Without democracy we lose that power and we become less human."

Wagle recognizes the potential conflict of interest in a press corps that is also one of its countries most active and critical voices of dissent, but it committed to keeping those roles as separate as possible. "Sometimes you will go to a protest with your press badge and your notebook or camera to get the story. Sometimes you will go with a sign to shout and get arrested. But you had better not be screaming slogans with a press ID card around your neck."

Wagle prefers to attend protests as a reporter. It is not that he is afraid of the police or getting arrested -- that has happened to him before and he is "proud to have contributed like that." But he says, "If I am in jail, who will write for the blog? How will the readers know what is happening here?"

It's 9:30 on a Saturday night, and Wagle has already met some of his goals for his first trip to the United States. He ate at a McDonald's in America (and reports no discernable difference between Los Angeles and Kathmandu burgers). He wants to see what young people do at night and plans to hit the town in a few hours.

First, however, he has some work to do. From a coffee shop with a free Wi-Fi connection (thus fulfilling his third goal to use wireless Internet), Wagle is updating his site, responding to comments from readers, posting his latest blog entry and reading news from home. The last few days have seen some of the most intense clashes between police and pro-democracy protestors since the coup. As he simultaneously chats with a colleague from home, reads a news article and moderates a comment from a reader, Wagle's smile has been replaced by a furrowed brow and a tight jaw.

He is sorry to have been absent during the protests. There is a day-time curfew and the Kantipur Daily has been denied a pass to move about the city. They will not be able to get to the printer that night so their coverage of the protests will not reach newsstands by morning.

He says he probably would have violated curfew had he been home: "Of course the government paper got a pass and that will be the only news of the event. I would probably spend the night running around and getting stories for the blog. It might be the only way to get them out."

His smile is back when he admits that he enjoys his work. The challenge, the adventure, the potential danger -- these are the things that make journalism in Nepal worth it. Sometimes he is scared, but people are counting on his blog. "That is my responsibility," he says. "As long as they do not kill me there is no real danger. If I get arrested that is just another contribution to cause."

Published: Monday, April 17, 2006