Sunday, October 14, 2007

Opressed and still on Press

Even though T.P. Mishra is the Top Editor at The Bhutan Reporter, a monthly English-language newspaper written by and for Bhutanese refugees, it is his responsibility to pick up the papers from the press and transport them to his rented room, which serves as the newspaper's head office. To say The Bhutan Reporter operates on a shoestring budget is an understatement.

By Laura Elizabeth Pohl

Walk with T.P. Mishra through the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal as he delivers his shoulder-load of the month's issue of the newspaper. Watch and hear to some of the people responsible for taking the chance to create The Bhutan Reporter. T.P. Mishra shifts his load of 1,000 newspapers from one shoulder to the other. Someone honks at him. He gracefully navigates through the maze of cars, motorcycles and people competing for space in the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal.

No staffers are paid and the paper's monthly budget of 2,500 Nepali rupees (about $40) is contributed by the staff's editors, many of whom work as teachers. Subscriptions and advertisements are impossible.

Most of the newspaper's readers are refugees who have lived in camps near Damak, in eastern Nepal, for the last 17 years. They are legally barred from officially holding jobs in Nepal which means they have little disposable income. In addition, the paper cannot solicit advertisements since it is technically an illegal publication; Nepalese law does not allow foreign-owned media - like The Bhutan Reporter - to publish their Nepali-news papers and magazines in the country.

"I always feel responsible to the 23 correspondents stationed in camps and other associate editors stationed in Kathmandu," said Mishra. "They have been sweating a lot selflessly, therefore the very frequent question I receive is that whether the paper will give continuity to its hard copy print."

Sometimes the answer Mishra gives is "no." The paper, which began printing in 2004, skips publishing at times due to lack of funds. Back in March, The Bhutan Reporter nearly ceased to exist until a story about the newspaper's plight appeared on Media Helping Media, an online portal for news about freedom of the press in transitional countries. An 11th-hour donation from the World Association of Newspapers saved the newspaper for three months.

Despite the financial hardships, the paper's reporters and editors remain steadfastly dedicated to journalism.

During a recent editorial meeting at one of the refugee camps, reporters told Mishra that he must find a way to continue publishing The Bhutan Reporter because it was the one thing they had to look forward to in their lives.

"I go to Damak by bicycle to bring (the) newspaper to camps," said Puspa Adhikari, one of the paper's special correspondents, referring to the town about an hour's bicycle ride from the Beldangi refugee camps. "I face lots of difficulties; I have ambition to become an international journalist."

Adhikari's dream is the dream of many of the paper's other reporters. But a lack of educational resources and opportunities may keep dreams from becoming reality. Most of The Bhutan Reporter's staff do not have formal journalism training and indeed, this is sometimes reflected in the newspaper's stories, which do not always name sources or attribute information. Readers, too, have suggestions for improving the newspaper.

"If this paper could add more reporters they could give more fresh news from on the spot. It is lacking this," said Kapil Muni Dahal, a 10th-grade Nepali language teacher at a school inside one of the seven refugee camps.

Despite this lack of fresh news, Dahal said, "I share the paper with other people whenever I get it. I read it among the group and translate it into Nepali and the people listen and interact."

It's that commitment to readers like Dahal and his friends that keeps Mishra and the rest of The Bhutan Reporter staff working on the paper month after month. Their dream is to transform the newspaper into a bi-monthly publication and more.

"We have been working, keeping the aim that one day we will reach establishing this paper as the leading paper of Bhutan," said Mishra.

(Laura Elizabeth Pohl is a freelance photographer based in Hampton Roads, Va. She received her B.A. from American University and her M.A. from the University of Missouri.)

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