Kathmandu: Just a few minutes after I started the conversation with Janmadev Jaisi, his phone started ringing continuously.
“Excuse me! This one is important,” Jaisi said.
“Dai! I think I will get my pending salaries by next week,” a journalist told Jaisi loudly over the phone. I could overhear it vividly. She sounded so happy. When I asked who she was, he said, “A journalist who had been waiting for so long to get her pending salary from a mainstream radio station.”
The journalist over the call thanked Jaisi, and hung up.
Over the last two decades, Jaisi has already earned his reputation as an ardent campaigner of rights of working journalists, broadly labor rights, in the country. He is a fighter. He is a journalist with an unwavering commitment to the rights of and justice for working journalists and media employees.
He is one of those who is often remembered by journalists when they face wage related issues or when they are in trouble.
After realizing that his work is deeply connected with the welfare of Nepali journalists, he has recently initiated a Working-Journalists Association of Nepal. The main motto of the organization is working toward ‘healthy, transparent, independent and ethical journalism’, Jaisi says. “This is not just an organization, it is a campaign. A campaign for labor rights, freedom of press and expression.”
A life full of struggle
Born and raised in Sanni Triveni Gaupalika (previously Ruku Village Development Committee) of Karnali, Jaisi explains how facing challenges and difficulties had already become part of his life since childhood. “I came from a normal peasant family. The family had extremely limited income. Above that, my mother is a person with disabilities. All these circumstances taught me that life is full of struggles. I learned to fight for survival.”
I grew up in a village where people used to die without getting paracetamol, forget the luxurious treatment, he shares. It was a different world where scarcity and poverty ran deep. Jaisi says that situation developed a “fire” inside him. “A fire that calls for the justice, equality and betterment of people.”
“I realized that there was another world different from Kalikot when I first came to Kathmandu in 1998,” he said.
Journey as a journalist
After he came to Kathmandu, he started doing various jobs for a living. He happened to work at a Hotel in Bagbazar, an old settlement of Kathmandu, where he happened to interact with many journalists.
“As a hotel waiter, I got the opportunity to get to know then editors and journalists who used to run weeklies and other periodicals,” he recalls. “At that time, Nepali press was still dominated by periodicals aligned with either one or another political ideology.”
As we were told in the village that communists were the ones who could ensure liberation, I was naturally attracted to that ideology, he says. “I do not know whether I had internalized the ideology, but I was close to communist views for justice, equality, equity and rights.”
“Initially, I started working with some periodicals that looked tilted toward communist ideology or known for promoting communist values.”
But, history should not be decoded in isolation, he immediately adds. “That was the time after the restoration of democracy in the country. Most of the journalists started their career during the Panchayat era. And they used to call it mission journalism.”
Mission journalism was a famous genre of journalism in Nepal during the Panchayat era. It was known as journalism that used to write content against direct rule of the king. Some periodicals were close to communist ideology while others sided with democratic values with an inclination toward the ideology of Nepali Congress.
Later, Jaisi joined a broadsheet daily, known as mainstream journalism in Nepal’s context. Getting experience in both politically influenced periodicals and mainstream dailies, he realized that the people in the media sector were heavily underpaid and exploitations were rampant. He used to hear stories of exploitation and other rights issues from his friends.
It was then that he realized that there should be someone who can speak of and write the news of those journalists who are suffering in silence, those who are writing news of injustice to others while they are not even paid their monthly salaries.
A challenging job
After he initiated the battle for justice for journalists, he realized that there is a deep rooted nexus between political parties and media owners. Regardless of the ideology, powerful politicians do not want to confront the media mogul, he makes a big statement. “They want to appease media tycoons for the sake of favor for their political career.”
This is the reason Nepali journalists’ battle for justice has become challenging, he adds.
“I have a feeling that even our bureaucracy does not ask questions to the media out of fear of criticism and spread of deliberate negative narrative framed by the media,” he shares his observation. “Be it big or small media, editorial values are highly compromised and most of the editors serve the publisher’s interests at the core.”
In this context, advocating for the rights of journalists means you are challenging the powerful ones and you are losing your potential opportunities. You are becoming an enemy of powerful political leaders or media tycoons, he says.
Why do journalists face difficulties?
Jaisi feels that there are multiple reasons that Nepali journalists often struggle to get even minimum wages. “First, the formulated laws are not sufficient. Second, there is noncompliance with the laws that are already in place.”
“During his decade-long involvement in the campaign, he realized that both the government agencies and media owners lack integrity. “Generally, media owners try to skip the part of their accountability when it comes to providing facilities to journalists.”
“Media tycoons always say that they are at a loss. But their businesses have diversified massively over the years. How is it possible that only the media business is in loss?” he questions. “Genuine situation is one thing and intention is another. I have a realization that media owners, in the majority of the cases, do not want to pay the journalists.”
There are some genuine issues in the media sector such as shrinking advertising volume, tough competition for new entrants and audience fragmentation, he said. “Covid also pushed some of the genuine media houses to hardship.” But, in his view, the government also failed to treat the media sector fairly when it comes to providing them support during the pandemic. “The government provided soft loans to some media houses, while others were given nothing. But I was told that the loan was not utilized for the purpose it was taken,” he said.
In his view, professional security of journalists is limited to promises and commitments. “Leaders promise. Media owners promise. But the journalists are still struggling just to get the minimum wages,” he says. “The situation demands an honest compliance to the prevailing laws. It also shows that we need an independent mechanism with clear jurisdiction to solve the grievances of journalists.”
“Everyone says the media is the fourth estate of the country. The more we try to address the grievances and complaints of this sector, the more our democratic values can be promoted. A compromised journalist cannot do fearless journalism for the overall promotion of democratic values,” he opines.
Jaise sometimes faces criticism from his own friends because of his critical views. But those critical views are for the greater good of Nepali media and journalists. “For me, issues like justice, rights, dignity are more important than any particular ideology,” he said.
He firmly believes that access to information should not be denied in any political settings for it is a precondition of empowerment of people. “People’s right to information should not be limited. No political ideology should generalize anti-freedom and anti-justice movements,” he opines.
“This should be the mantra for all. In the 21st century, we should be equally concerned with national needs as well as international standards while taking any measures related to freedom of expression and of the press.”
Demand right, be responsible
Jaisi believes that the campaign of demanding labor rights of working journalists should continue in the days to come. “But the method of demanding rights should be responsible.”
“We should abide by the law and our methods should be nonviolent. This is a method which gives us moral ground to fight for justice,” he shares. “We should analyze the nuance of context and legal grounds before taking any initiative. If we stand on weak ground, our agenda will fizzle out in the course of time.”
That’s why, he has taken, what he calls, a balanced approach of late. What does this mean? He says it means do not compromise your values, do not compromise agenda but be open for dialogue. “This is a way by which many journalists have been able to get their rights.”
During the conversation, Jaisi received three more phone calls from journalists sharing with him issues related to professional insecurity. To each of them he replied: “I will do everything possible from my side to get your problems solved.”