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Media, Development and Democracy

Paper presented by Ananda P Srestha in the Seminar organised by The Telegraph weekly(TW)/Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung(FES), 03 December 2003


Background

It is common knowledge that for ideal conditions of democracy to subsist, the existence of a free and pluralistic media system is one of the foremost conditions. In other words, the existence of democracy in the true sense is not possible without an independent media. One of the remarkable phenomenon during the latter part of the twentieth century has been the emergence of media power, the impact of which has been all pervasive, transcending national frontiers.

That a free, independent media plays a major role in ensuring proper functioning of a democracy by mustering public opinion against corrupt practices that comes with power and authority cannot be disputed either. The role of mass media as gatekeepers not only in the dissemination of information but also as watchdogs of a democratic polity are well recognized the world over. These twin roles can be served most through strengthening private sector enterprises, training of media practitioners and development of a mechanism allowing for grievances against excesses of wrong doings by media organizations and individuals.

It is also interesting to note that the advent of satellite communications during the nineteen sixties and the development of information technologies have changed the conventional power equation based on military hardware and armaments. National media have grown in stature into global media making it possible to penetrate their messages simultaneously to remote corners of the globe. This has as a result changed the conventional security perceptions of nations who jealously guarded their national interests thus, making them impervious to external ideological influences.

The Nepali context

Nepal has undergone some forty-five years period of experimentation with various forms of governments. The popular revolution of 1950 ushered in an era of multi party democracy, which barely lasted a decade only to be followed by thirty years of partyless Panchayat rule, which outlawed the functioning of political parties. The situation was thus, not conducive for the growth of an independent media. The Panchayat constitution required the media to be non-partisan and on that basis, registrations of those were often cancelled that did not toe the Panchayati line or that raised the voice of dissent. At such times, the private sector media had to struggle for survival at times even by compromising their interests with those in power. The Nepali press as it was then had very little room for criticism.

In April 1990, the restoration of multi party democracy in the country marked a watershed in Nepal's media situation and brought about a sea change of sorts. Now full formal freedom of information is guaranteed by the constitution. The political change came as a major landmark in opening up a new era of liberalism and freedom in the country. The constitutional provisions on human rights, more specifically on press freedom, are now far more liberal and elaborate when compared to other third world countries. Shortly after the promulgation of the new constitution in 1990, the clause 13 of which guarantees freedom of the press and publication, a new Press and Publications Act was passed by parliament, stipulating guarantees for the freedom and independence of the press. This led to considerable development of the media in the country in terms of quantity, in terms of boldness and outspokenness but, unfortunately to a great degree less in reporting quality.

It has been rightly said that choosing a new political system is choosing a new communications system, and it is now well over thirteen years since the people of Nepal made that choice. Much water has flown in the Bagmati since then, particularly on the media front, which has since thrown open new vistas of hope, ideas, aspirations and expectations. Today, needless to say, freedom of expression is an established value, oppressive press laws are done away with and censorship, something that is absolutely unthinkable. Awareness is very much in and reminiscences of a closed communications system is now relegated to the dim and the ancient past. But in spite of the multi party democracy being ushered in and with it freedom and guarantees, the mass media sector in Nepal ironically, continues to face numerous hurdles and contradictions that hinder in bringing about a dynamic information-saturated social structure, strong enough to sustain the democratic polity and the freedom that comes with it.

No doubt, there is much to rejoice over, but there is also enough in the news that has a sobering effect. Incidents of corruption, killings and the abuse of human rights, occasionally front-paged by the papers almost every day are serious enough to make us see sense and brush aside the political euphoria that followed the mass movement for the restoration of democracy in 1990. The frequent skirmishes between the leaders of political parties and the press tell of deep distrust between the two. Reporters have time and again been taken into custody, arrested or detained on flimsy grounds and journalists have been harassed, manhandled, maimed, kidnapped and even murdered. The accusations against the state media regarding news blackouts, falsifying information and muffling the public voice, instead of dying out gradually has ironically, reached new heights.

The political scenario of the past thirteen years or so has not been encouraging either. To put it mildly, the period has yielded political instability born from power politics and the violence and turbulence it has unleashed. Frequent changes in governments have badly affected the functioning of the public administration. A growing problem of corruption and the Maoist menace also threatens the ability of the public sector to carry out its necessary functions in society and to undermine the public trust in political authorities and multi party democracy. The movement for the restoration of democracy has brought in its wake, achievement, euphoria, victory, hope, frustration, disappointment, scandals galore, ethnic turmoil, civil unrest, rampant corruption, vertical split in major political parties, too frequent change in governments, the Maoist insurgency, the royal palace massacre, political violence, blatant outside interference/ infiltration, drastic failures on the foreign policy front, the royal intervention, and failures in negotiations -whether it be regarding the Bhutanese refugee issue, or talks with the Maoists to bring in a modicum of peace and political stability. To put it bluntly, democracy restored now hangs in a precarious balance.

During the period, the people have also seen governments change in rapid succession -almost every year on average! They have witnessed governments of every possible hue, color and combination come in and go out of power and as a result have also seen their hopes, dreams, aspirations and faith in the democratic leadership dashed to pieces. Seldom has so much happened in so short a time. The media looked and analyzed these events and issues in their own way but sadly mostly from partisan angles. If some front paged certain issues and gave it prime importance, others mentioned it cursorily. If some toed the party line and hushed up matters, those on the other side of the fence blew the very same issue out of proportion. There is some truth in the belief that if one is to get reliable information on a particular issue, then one must read papers that are mouthpieces of the ruling party, the opposition and those that are presumably neutral and then form an opinion. This unfortunately is still the predicament of the Nepali mass media today.

Part of the problem is due to the inability of those working in the area, to fully grasp the salience of communication in a nation's economic growth and democratization underlined by the insignificant role accorded to it and symbolized in a tiny budget. The problem in the Nepalese media thus demands a hard look at both its past and present. Even a casual look into its present state of affairs shows that it is still afflicted by two basic maladies namely, the long felt absence of a truly independent and competitive media in the private sector; and the other, the dominant role of the state owned media.

In a fast changing world of mass media, both at home and abroad, it is imperative that we reexamine the values and goals, reformulate the media approach to development planning and restructure the policy framework. When looked at closely, so as to assess the critical bearing that the mass media could possibly have in the process of democratization and development, they can provide valuable inputs for media planning, specific policies on certain regions and even in area of policy formulation and strategies. Acceptance of democratic principles means that democratization has proceeded in several respects. The recent examples of advancing openness and democratization has been in the form of the liberalization of radio broadcasting regulations and providing the license to FM radio stations.

In this context, to the extent that the independent media is self reliant, it can contribute to the avoidance of some of the threats, being faced by multi party democracy in Nepal. The potential damaging effects of corruption to society are enormous. This is an area where truly independent media could come in more effectively and fulfill their watchdog function thereby, contributing to political stability and the emergence of a democratic political culture intolerant of corruption and thereby promoting multi party democracy and development.

The globalization of information has narrowed down geographic distances considerably by bringing individuals closer than ever before. As the people are being more and more exposed to multiple channels of information, so are sensitivities and shared political commonalities such as commitment to democracy, human rights and freedom. This commitment could be invariably improved with the presence of a vibrant, vigilant and active media system.

The Present Scenario

Despite promises made by the National Communication Policy of 1992, none of them seem to have materialized in the true sense. The grip on official media apparatus by political parties in power continues unabated and is reminiscent of the Panchayat days, thus providing the opportunity to distort information and misinform the people at large. The biggest irony in the media sector is that even in today's democratic set up, the government still controls the only national news agency, which acts as a gatekeeper in newsgathering and distribution of information all over the kingdom. The official newspapers disseminate mostly news and views of the government and the electronic media, radio and television are used as powerful propaganda machines by those in power. The contention as to whether the government in a democratic dispensation should be allowed to operate its own newspapers (mouthpieces) and other publicity organs is still a much debated issue.

Nepali mass media is yet to assert its role as powerful instruments of public opinion in keeping with the norms of a liberal, free and pluralistic democratic setup. While training programmes to media professionals are being provided by the private sector organizations in addition to Tribhuvan University operated course of study, efforts are still lacking on various categories of media professionals to follow commonly agreed standards. It comes as a quite a surprise that the government has yet to play a role supporting manpower training, service standardization or promotion of ethical standards in the mass media sector.

It is an irony of sorts that even the democratically elected governments did not want to free the government controlled media despite the fact that the policy clearly agreed in principle that a democratic government does not operate the media. Instead, those in power have used the official media in the manner exactly the way the erstwhile Panchayat system did. Though a number of communication policies, commissions, and task forces on media matters have been formed in the past thirteen years, a change for the better in the media scene remains a far cry.

A great majority of primary stakeholders in the Nepali media favour a further strengthening of independent media in Nepal. Among other stakeholders, support for further professionalism of independent media is widespread, but there is some disagreement on the modus operandi of the preferred action, reflecting value differences as well as vested institutional interests

Despite repeated reassurances, the government has failed to live up to its commitments in safeguarding the rights of working journalists and remains somewhat tight lipped on the matter. However, the journalists are also to blame for failing to fight for their rights. There is also lack of a comprehensive media policy in the country and needs to be formed and implemented at the earliest. The government also needs to create a conducive working environment for the journalists, who are currently working under pressure and terror. In such a situation, journalists are unable to write freely because of constant fear.

Journalists need a moral code to help them understand their responsibility, but the state has to provide all available information to stop journalists from trying to find it from other sources. The government needs codes of practice to ensure transparency and to persuade the media to cooperate in withholding sensitive information. If the government allows information vacuum to develop in a particular area, it is likely to be filled in by disinformation by interested parties. Needless to say, suppression of information leads to hearsay and affects credibility and authenticity of the media. In this context, an independent self-reliant media can contribute in warding off corruption, the potential damage of which is enormous and one of the major threats now being faced by multi party democracy in Nepal. If a truly independent media are allowed to evolve and fulfill their watchdog function unhindered, they could contribute to the emergence of a political culture intolerant of corruption. Besides, they could also contribute tremendously towards reversing political instability in the country, developing multi party democracy and overall social and economic development of the country.

In the present situation, the independent media are predominantly print media, but their real independence is often questionable as they are mostly far from being self-reliant and this makes them vulnerable to excessive commercialization. There is a risk that commercial concerns may lead the independent media away from performing its watchdog function, informative function and the role as a forum for public debate. The lacking self-reliance could also make the independent media vulnerable to direct political pressures and may at times also tempt them to accept political allegiance in return for financial or other forms of support.

The level of professionalism remains low in most of the print media. Only a few national dailies and weekly newspapers have a professional getup. The large majority of dailies and weeklies struggle to survive, as problems in increasing circulation, improving distribution, attracting advertisements and managing their finances plague them incessantly. In such conditions, the survival rate of newspapers is low, and it is therefore tempting for editors to bow to political pressure in return for financial support, or to lower professional standards in return for lower costs or higher circulation. Under such trying circumstances, it becomes near impossible for the independent Nepalese print media to play the role of a watchdog and safeguard multi party democracy. Professionalism in the media has also been seriously hampered due to strong political bias and leanings of individuals who run newspaper establishments.

Presently, financial conditions in the independent media sector are difficult. This has meant that wage and working conditions are relatively poor. For well reputed journalism trainers as well as trained journalists, there are often other more attractive positions available in the labour market -therefore, the danger that efforts to strengthen journalism training and education systems could benefit other sectors than the one for which it is intended.

Need for Effective Media Policy

The implementing of an effective media policy is therefore imperative as our media, whether we like it or not, have also entered the world of cyber communication. The present media laws are believed to be outdated as they were introduced and formulated at a time when only print media existed in the country. Today the situation has changed drastically considering that there are several private FM radio stations, private TV channels and cyber newspapers. Due to the lack of government vision, multi-media ownership as well as direct foreign investment has been seen in the country, which can prove disastrous for the country in the long term.

The existing media policy is not comprehensive as it does not cover media support systems, radio, television, advertisements, cinema, online journalism and many others. There is no clear policy even on the radio, television, frequency modulations and code of conduct for the electronic media. Furthermore, no transparent system of licensing for FM and private television broadcasting is in place. Some publication houses are allowed to run more than two media against the spirit of the communication policy, and even foreign investment in Nepali media is believed to have already taken place though the present media policy prohibits it. However, a task force constituted to study the electronic media in the past has recommended allowing foreign investment only in technical sectors. As foreign investment in disguise can prove to be more harmful, it may be advisable to allow foreign ownership within reasonable limits and editorial control in Nepali hands.

Media experts are underlining the need for a review of the existing media policy considering the changes that have happened in society and for its effective implementation. Similarly, the need for an independent and fully autonomous media apex body has also been mooted since the last few years in order to guarantee and safeguard the freedom of the press and the welfare of the media people. However, those in power have not shown enough commitment to translate the word and spirit of the media policy into practice.

Training

Just recently, having been permitted by the government, independent radio broadcasting will feel a strong need for training in radio journalism and for basic radio transmission equipment. Given the geography of Nepal and its implication for transportation and distribution of print media products, and given the high rate of literacy, there are large potentials in supporting the development of independent radio broadcasting.

It is believed that there are very few professional media NGOs providing training in various mass media related disciplines. Most of their curriculum is said to be obsolete by over two decades! In view of the present need of improving the quality of training at par with regional and international standards, a pool of qualified media trainers will have to be created to sustain the increasing demand of trained personnel. It is also essential that the training curricula address the latest advances in information technology and expertise requirements of a truly multi-media environment.

All stakeholders favour a strengthening of journalism training and education, pointing to significant deficiencies in the present system of training as lacking important elements and providing only basic introduction to journalism. There is a need for more advanced training, among other things concerning reporting, editing, investigative journalism, technical know how in radio and press skills and layout. There is also a need for more advanced training to persons already working as journalists and publishers for example in the field of newspaper management and marketing, as well as subject base courses aimed at strengthening journalists insights, thereby providing the basis for quality reporting in areas such as business, health and environment.

There is also the ardent need for the strengthening of an academically based journalism education and an improvement in the very poor physical working conditions that journalism students and members of the staff are subjected to.


Media and National interests

As regards national interest seen in the last thirteen years, it is rather surprising that the political parties and their media supporters have remained deeply divided. Whether it be in matters of foreign policy or issues related to agreements on water resources there have always been two distinct schools of thought. This has been even more so especially regarding the Tanakpur imbroglio, the Baneshwor raid by Indian security personnel, the Mahakali package issue, or the Kalapani issue to name but a few. It is understandable for differences among political parties to persist on the domestic front especially on matters of state policy, but it is rather odd that such differences should spill over into sensitive issues like vital national interests.

Coming to recent times, it is understandable that Prime Minister Thapa's coverage of his recent India visit is given no space in the Indian media, not even in the inside pages of the broadsheet national dailies. It is obvious that the black out of the news by the Indian media was basically to make it difficult for Nepali media people to fathom what PM Thapa did while in India, whom he met and what was the agenda for the talks. It is no coincidence that whenever there is political turmoil, or upheaval in Nepal, or when there is a change in the government or in the political dispensation, India moves swiftly and somewhat aggressively regarding its vested interests in Nepal, especially in matters of security and water resources. The signing of the Kosi, Gandaki, the Tanakpur embroglio and the Mahakali package, with India, from the early nineteen fifties to date if examined closely, all took place at such times of crisis.

At a time when the five and a half-party agitation against "regression" and the Maoist insurgency are continuing simultaneously, it is therefore, not the least bit surprising that the Thapa government is signing agreements, one after another with India. Just recently, the government of Nepal is reported to have signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the Upper Karnali and Budhi Gandaki hydropower projects and that the two sides, Nepal and India have agreed to prepare a detailed project report on Budhi Gandaki within a period of two years. The Thapa-led government, according to reports, has also signed the Kosi high dam project and the Kamala hydropower and irrigation project by giving India the upper hand over Nepalese waters.

The Upper Karnali, believed to be the "jewel in the crown" is a highly cost effective hydropower project with 300Mw capacity with a relatively low capacity cost of 1514 USD, which Nepal could easily have taken it up on its own. The Budhi Gandaki is a water storage project, the dammed waters of which will mainly benefit India downstream during the lean seasons. Thanks to the Thapa government, India has already sunk its teeth in the two much coveted projects. According to reports, there were varying reactions to these developments by Nepal's water experts especially concerning the Upper Karnali, but they were unanimous in the view that the aggressive approach adopted by India indicates, in no uncertain terms, that it is going for the "quick and final kill." The move also supports the argument put forward by intellectuals that India will not go for projects that will benefit Nepal economically.

Why there has been a near blackout of news relating to these crucial treaties in the Nepali media -except for one or two dailies and weeklies that touched on it cursorily- remains a mystery! Maybe it was due to the restrained and somewhat guided report of the national news agency RSS let out on. All it said was that the PM paid a courtesy call on his Indian counterpart Atal Bihari Vajpayee and held talks on bilateral issues and that furthermore, there was a closed door, one on one meeting between the two for ten minutes. It is however, quite evident that the focus of the as talks concentrated primarily in the energy sector, on the political situation in Nepal and on ways to boost security on the Nepal India border with Indian help.

In another instance, it is reported that since Nepal does not have a Railway Act as such, the Nepal India Railway Agreement, was signed by the Nepali side agreeing to a security package drafted by the Indian side, which grants India the right to protect her "essential security interests." What will be the impact of such an agreement for the long term, or how India could interpret the clause provides plenty of food for thought. That an interpretation by the Indian side of the said clause could go against Nepal's very own security interests cannot be ruled out.

Nearly a decade ago, Nepal and India had signed an agreement for drafting a detailed project report of the Mahakali treaty within six months, but to this day, for whatever reasons, it has yet to materialize. Taking advantage of the political instability in Nepal once more, India seems to be getting the Thapa government to sign treaties, one after another, that benefit them directly. Intellectuals and political analysts believe that "…it was precisely for this very reason that Surya B Thapa, with Indian backing, became the PM of Nepal!" If these developments have been in exchange for extending Thapa's tenure in office or for that mater solving the Bhutanese refugee crisis and the Maoist menace, said to be operating from Indian soil, only time will tell.

This, however, is not to blame India for taking advantage of such situations at our cost. As a matter of fact, India should be credited for having done a marvelous job by deftly maneuvering political ill winds to advantage and pushing forward its national interests. If anybody is to be blame, it is the Nepali leaders and decision makers, who over the years have not been able to do likewise. Instead, in the signing of water and other sensitive treaties with India, Nepal in every one of them has been dealt a raw deal. In other words, we never learnt from our past mistakes but -knowingly or unknowingly- kept repeating the same mistakes with uncanny precision and clinical accuracy.

Therefore, instead of gloating in self pity over our size and severe landlocked ness and exhibiting the defeatist attitude we have been prone to, it never for once occurred to us that we need to steel ourselves like true business executives and be realistic, and if necessary ruthless, in regard to our dealings with neighbours on matters of national interest. After all, in this interdependent world of give and take, nothing is static and hindrances in making independent decisions by nations can be overcome by deftly using to advantage the changing world situation and the economic and political compulsions of neighbours.

Against this backdrop, it is not hard to fathom why Nepal signed such controversial agreements at a time when the country is going through a bad political patch and moreover, when there is no parliament as such to endorse the agreements. There is also a growing suspicion on the manner in which the extradition treaty, signed between Nepal and India several years ago, has been reviewed of late. This thinking acquires prominence considering that Maoist leaders in spite of being declared "terrorists" by India are openly using the Indian soil for their activities. That C.P. Gajurel, an important figure in the Maoist hierarchy, trying to get to London on a forged passport and arrested by the Indian authorities and yet to be extradited to Nepal is another case in point. Just arresting Maoist party cadres and handing them over to the Nepali authorities in the name of the extradition treaty, while the big fish escape the net, raises questions about the basics of the extradition treaty reviewed and signed by the two countries lately. The Nepali media could play a catalytic role in this regard, on other vital issues of national interest discussed above, and bring things out in the open. The day this watchdog function becomes a reality, the Nepali media will be regarded as having come of age!


References

Ananda P Srestha, (Ed.,) The Role of Civil Society and Democratization in Nepal. Kathmandu: NEFAS/FES, 1998.

Sridhar K Khatri, Hari Uprety, (Eds.,) Energy Policy: National and Regional Implication. Kathmandu: NEFAS/FES, 2002.

Heinz Bongartz and Dev Raj Dahal, Development Studies: Self Help Organizations, NGOs and Civil Society. Kathmandu: NEFAS/FES, 1996.

Himal South Asian, November 2003, Kathmandu.

HMGN, The Constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal, 1990, Kathmandu: HMGN.

 
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