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Democracy, Development and Media

Paper Presented by Shrish S. Rana at a seminar organized by The Telegraph Weekly and FES in Kathmandu on December 3, 2003

The terms democracy, development and the media have been so used over the past years that the need to introduce this paper with definitions and terminologies on them perhaps becomes redundant. In the Nepali context, it will perhaps be more fruitful to use this opportunity to ask ourselves serious questions on our experiment with democracy, development and the media to determine where we err in our interpretations and why.

To this scribe democracy and development are interlinked. Describing development as a positive movement from one stage to a better stage, we can ask ourselves how this can be achieved in the societal context without the participation of the bulk of society. For development to take place, therefore, participation becomes crucial. For that section of society to participate, an adequate degree of identification among the populace, a felt need to participate would seem mandatory. The key words here, then, become identification and participation. These two terms are applied very much in definitions of democracy. For a population to identify adequately enough to participate, they must find the right incentive. What better an incentive than the notion that they participate for their benefit, for their development, in the type of development they seek at the very policy levels through their public representatives who they themselves elect?

As much as this should make clear the linkage between development and democracy, it should also perhaps help set the parameters for judging our democracy. We have elections to public office under the constitution no doubt. How much do we identify with the policies of a government elected by us and how much do these policies attract our participation? How well have these policies contributed to government? And what of good governance?

In another manner of speaking, democracy is also development. It is political development. Just as the goals of development become a continuum- development from one stage to another better stage having been achieved, there are more targets set automatically and the achievement of yet another better stage is targeted or aspired for-it is thus a continuous process. The more developed countries are also developing and the consensus is that they are developing faster than us in the developing countries. Likewise, if one watches the political development of the more developed countries, they are still democratizing. Take the British system as example - we tend to build our democracy in their model constitutionally at least. The revival of parliament in Scotland is a recent innovation, the Welsh experience is underway and the manner of settlement of the Northern Ireland problem is continuously impacting on the British democratic system.

The American System is developing still. How the U.S. coped with the black problem, the Hispanics and, now, their attempts to approach the Asian émigrés, how the U.S. is taking up minority issues outside race such as gender certainly impact on the functioning of their democracy. These experiments have their own barometers of democratic success-- identification and participation in development and its impact on development, socio-economic and 'systemic', become handy measurements to gauge their impact on political development, i.e. democracy.

These are, again, useful parameters by way of judging our democratic and developmental performance. Among other things, the fact that the constitutions in these countries have by no means become impediments to incur these developments should perhaps set us thinking as to why over the past fifty odd years of our experiments with development and democracy in the modern sense of the term we are still embroiled in the constitutionality of it all? To put it the other way around, we might well ask ourselves whether our seeming political obsession with constitutions has been productive to democracy and development.

Constitutional guarantees of fundamental rights, of course, become part of that now accepted need for identification and participation for development, read also political development, i.e., democracy. But latter day political analysts now concur that the inclusion of these in a constitution and, even, the use of elections as a means to validate democracy can go awry. We now have 'electoral' democracies and 'developed' democracies in our terminologies. Even among the 'electoral' democracies, there are 'mature' and 'immature' qualifications. The Indian model for example is considered an 'electoral' democracy by some analysts while the consensus is that it being in practice for over half a century now makes it a 'mature' one.

Since the 1950s, Nepal has embarked on a course of political development that insists on a representative system of government based on elections. This cannot be disputed. We have also embarked on a course of constitutional development. We have had several changes in constitutions emphasizing representative electoral governments. The prevalent constitution is yet another manifestation of this development. In course of this search for development from one stage to another conceived better stage, the Maoists are currently conducting an armed insurgency advocating what essentially constitutes yet another constitution.

Conceive of the fact that the developed countries which are developing faster than us could achieve development with a dissimilar emphasis on constitutional development and then we might ask ourselves whether constitutional development is at all development. We might then come to the conclusion that democracy, as another term for political development, is not merely constitutional. It is in the practice of constitutions that development occurs. Democracy, after all is behavioral and, while constitutions may prescribe the structures and functions of state, it is the actors of state, principally the population and those that act on its behalf that define the behavior. Going by this argument, we can conclude that the Nepali population will 'develop' when change for the better occurs in our behavior. Whether our behavior is better thus perhaps should stand scrutiny more than constitutions in a discourse on democracy, development and the media in Nepal.

Since development by its very definition connotes change and since it is safe to conclude that we cannot develop until our behavior changes for the better, the determinants of behavior, our values and belief systems, would also have to undergo a relevant degree of scrutiny. Have they changed? Have they changed for the better? In other words, for us to achieve 'development', also 'democracy', more than constitutional change, it is behavioral change that is required for which a suitable shift, for the better, is required in our values and belief systems.

Again, since our values and belief systems affect our political behavior and since our political behavior affects our democracy and since democracy here has been so interlinked with constitutional development, it is clear that our values and belief systems affect our constitutional practice, whatever the shape, size or content of the prevalent constitution. In so many ways therefore, it would be relevant here to question the extent to which our constitution reflects our values and belief systems since it is change in the values and belief systems that, in accordance to this argument, will bring about development, political development as well. Conversely one might argue that the further we are in our constitutions from our real values and belief systems, the further away is the chance that we will be able to bring about change in the values and beliefs and the further we will be away from 'development'.

It is at this juncture that one would like to bring in a discussion on the Nepali media and its performance. Keeping away from the by now habitual discourse on definitions and functions of the media, one would suggest that the Nepali media also reflects these values and beliefs since they are part of the same population. Concluding that the same values and belief systems that reflect upon our practice of the constitution is reflected in the media may not be out of place here.

Of course, a torrent of protest from the media sector on such a seemingly mundane conclusion would be justified. By its very nature, the media is manned by the educated or, at least, the literate whose access to 'development' is higher than the rest of the population and their orientation towards development is expected to be higher than the bulk 'underdeveloped' population. Their values and belief systems would be better primed to accept development. Indeed, in so many ways, they would be better motivated to be in the vanguard for helping transform our values and belief systems towards development. Many a discussion on the role of the media gives it this responsibility as well.

But, then, similar roles have been prescribed to other change agents. The bureaucracy and the political sector by and large are manned by similarly advantageously equipped personnel. The fact that our developing country has select urban elite manning key decision-making positions is by now a standard critique of our democratic and developmental experience. What makes the media of a different genre? It is by no means, given the literacy or educational qualification which is still in the peripheries of the advantaged, representative of the population at large. The Nepali political elite which has for decades now mouthed development and the Nepali bureaucracy which monopolizes its implementation is not much distant in the nature of its manpower from that of the media. Moreover, the Nepali media is now widely understood to have its linkages with the political sector to its own embarrassment. If the political sector can fall-- and must in a democracy emphasizing people's participation-prey to the prevalent values and beliefs of the masses that compose our democracy, can the media be an exception?

It would serve the purposes of this paper well, therefore, if discussions in this seminar turn towards the performance of the media in reflecting or at least recognizing the role these values and beliefs have in the practice of democracy in the country.

Has the media identified these determinants of our political behavior at all? After all, political reportage that constitutes the bulk of media coverage here and political analysis would have to take cognizance of these determinants to come close to the facts. Should or should not we in the media judge our performance on how close we come to Nepali realities in our portrayal of facts?

One might well conclude with these questions on the media in gauging its performance and role in our democracy. The sea change that the media sector has seen since the introduction in 1991 of the present constitution-- increase in numbers, in frequency, in media type and services, technology-- have all been grist for many a media seminar to elaborate upon here. Is it not time for us to begin building real parameters regarding media content to gauge its actual contributions to our democracy and development?


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