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Media Freedom in Times of National Crisis

Shrish S. Rana


1.There is unanimous conclusion that the constitution of 1990 helped engineer a quantum leap in the state of the Nepali media because of constitutional guarantees of the freedom of press and publication and the right to access of information. This rare point of convergence on one outstanding achievement of the movement for the restoration of democracy that year manifests itself amply in the substantial flow of investments in the media sector that has resulted over the years since in the growth of the media industry and the tools and technology applied. Granted that this investment attraction has now reached a competitive phase where lacuna in adequate legislation matching the constitutional provisions has prompted industry demands for such. But the general consensus is that the constitutionally enshrined freedoms have contributed to the presence of a media industry in the country.[1]

A National Crisis?

2. To the chagrin of media professionals, however, the Nepali media’s longstanding linkages with the political establishment marring professional coverage in preference of partisan or biased political coverage holds.[2] It is in this light that one must assess the exercise of the freedoms enshrined in the constitution for the media by the media on the perspectives it has chosen to opt for regarding the existence of, or the recognition of, a ‘national crisis’ in Nepal. Is there a ‘national crisis’?

3. Typical of this politico- media linkage, a national crisis as recognized by the legal enactment of parliament and hence legislated and thus recognized also by the media did exist in the formal imposition of an Emergency under Article 115 of the Constitution of Nepal in November 26th 2001 which was extended by Royal decree upon mandatory expiry on May 27th, 2002. Gokul Pokhrel in a Nepal Press Institute seminar paper ‘A Free Media as Defender of Democracy (Freedom of Information in an Emergency)’ explains well the process of the first and only officially recognized crisis period in the country invoking the emergency and its impact on the media.[3] As Pokhrel points out, the November move was “hailed by all political parties and civil society and organizations as a compulsion thrust upon government by the insurgents”. The media appears to have obliged. The attempt by the Sher Bahadur Deuba government to extend the emergency after its three-month expiry, however, triggered a series of political crises the reverberations of which continues to be felt today but is not corroborated as such by the political sector and thus has yet to be adequately attended to by the media too.

4. Deuba who took office on a platform of talks with the Maoists was fired by his party boss Girija Koirala on the issue of the extension of the emergency and had to engineer a formal split in the Nepali Congress. In anticipation of the opposition CPN/UML coalescing with his Koirala rivals in parliament to challenge his parliamentary majority on the emergency issue, he chose to recommend the dissolution of parliament while he retained his majority and extend the emergency by Royal decree. This concluded the ‘national’ approach to a national emergency. If the national crisis is by implication the ensuing Maoist conflict this is the sole occasion in its eight year history when the nation, including the press, met the crisis as a nation. Ever before or after, it has merely been governments that have tackled the crisis. The media, expectedly perhaps, has followed the political hues.[4]

5. The opposition to the emergency by Deuba’s opponents emanated from their contention that the newly promulgated anti-terrorism laws sufficed to cope with the Maoist ‘crisis’. The media, directly hit by the curbs, readily agreed. Deuba eventually lifted the emergency. But another national crisis emerged: a constitutional crisis. Until Deuba’s emergency existed by decree, he was accused in the media of ruling by decree in the absence of parliament and in coalition with the king and the army. After the emergency was lifted, the non-resolution of the Maoist ‘crisis’ proved impedimental to elections constitutionally to be held within six months of the dissolution of parliament and the Deuba government, in cognizance with the opposition CPN/UML and the RPP, sought recourse to the use of the residual powers of the king under Article 127 of the Constitution the interpretations of which is the current source of the constitutional crisis.

6. In essence, then, there is the Maoist conflict and there is the constitutional conflict. Except for the emergency period, the Maoist conflict has not been approached as a ‘national crisis’. It has been approached on separate partisan lines and the media has followed suit. Identifying a national crisis, thus, appears difficult in the very first place for the political and media sectors in Nepal. Its consequences on attempts at conflict resolution are somber indeed. It need not be stressed that crisis role functions can only be determined after the crisis is identified; in the absence of such identification, recourse will be to assume the normal role functions. On the issue of the Maoist conflict, the Nepali media is replete with reportage and comments on the conflict on a routine basis. This would be normally expected in a crisis situation too. But a national crisis situation which would want from the media a role to provoke, promote and prompt a national approach to the crisis or even to prefer one would surely entail the identification of the national crisis first. Even if the politicians may be blamed for their partisan interests playing foul with the need for a national consensus in approaching the Maoist issue since it has provoked a national crisis, can the media which carries the twist and turns of the conflict and opinions and advice on it day in day out afford not to identify this as a national crisis and demand a national approach? In this, the media will have digressed from its traditional partnership with the political sector but will indeed have served a long cherished goal in opinion building surely. Such a media preference would very much subscribe to the modernism prescribed by Jurgen Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action.[5]

Freedom: Communicative Action

7. As pointed out above, the crisis that is the result of the Maoist insurgency is very much part of the current constitutional crisis. In the very first place, the insurgency takes place on Maoist claims that the constitution is inadequate and a new constitution must replace the current one. This systemic challenge appears not to have been recognized as such by the stakeholders of the system or else one would have seen a suitable response from the stakeholders. Is or is not the media among the stakeholders? Direct beneficiaries as they are of the Constitution of 1990, one must surely answer this in the affirmative. And, so asking for communicative action on part of the communicators at least in locating the crisis is hardly the preserve of Haabermas in our case. As of the moment, if there is a role for our media, it is here.

8. Coming, then to the constitutional crisis, recognition by the media that there is linkage between the lack of systemic response and the emergence of the constitutional crisis would surely be a good beginning. Indeed, this would entail a frank assessment of the events leading to the October 4th, 2002 decision by King Gyanendra to deny prime minister Deuba his claim to continue in office by the use of the king’s residual powers in the constitution under Article 127 but, instead, to call for cooperation in the “setting up soon of an interim, neutral administration composed of individuals with a ‘clean’ image who would not contest the forthcoming polls.”[6] As yet, general media coverage has tended to view the king’s use of Article 127 in line with the mainstream parties who allege that it is a step towards ‘regression’. The Deuba Congress deems its dismissal as unconstitutional and wants its reinstitution in government, the Congress- Girija wants the revival of the dissolved parliament while the CPN-UML which claims it opposed the dissolution of the house viewed the constitutional recourse to be the appointment of a government under Article 128 of the Constitution, a clause that gave the interim government of 1990 its constitutional legitimacy after the panchayat constitution was abrogated and the interim government which oversaw the drafting of the new constitution was installed.

9. Since October 2002, an independent media standpoint on the need for a united national approach to the national crisis would surely have questioned the constitutionality of these partisan interpretations as well. Had the coverage, willingly given, of the international community’s suggestion that the King and the political parties cooperate for a permanent solution been granted its constitutional perspective, the constitutional flaws in the separate partisan demands would perhaps have been more widely disseminated by a media concerned for the emergence of a consensus national opinion in the formulation of a national government capable of putting the constitution back on track and handling the Maoist crisis.

10. How the political sector is handling the crisis in the agitation is better discussed elsewhere, but after two governments under Article 127 and two sets of failed talks with the Maoists, the actual implications and ramifications of the agitation ‘against regression’ conducted by the mainstream political parties remains strangely beyond the reach of public discussion in the media. A sense of the surreal thus dominates Nepali politics today and its reflection in the media is stranger still. An agitation by and large limited to cadre of the organized political sector largely ignored by the lay public dominates media coverage. A government whose very constitutionality is challenged is isolated by the agitating parties is having to face the brunt of the Maoist crisis. The Maoists have verily taken advantage of both to heighten the crisis and media reportage cannot but cover this, especially when the Maoists have calculatedly paced-up their violent presence.

11. In the process, the media must largely tow partisan lines while commenting on and reporting the King’s resort to assuage an increasingly desperate people by visiting the crisis affected areas as proof of ‘regression’ while the presence of the masses at these gatherings despite the visible non-cooperation of the mainstream parties and the violent opposition to it by the Maoists remains largely dismissed as state sponsored. This, then, should provoke a question of the media: ‘What is the Nepali state’? At times of national crisis, it is perhaps in locating the nation that the media can use its freedoms best.

12. From a media perspective, the use of this freedom would seem especially relevant in analyzing the Nepali crisis and suggesting a role for the media. Noam Chomsky’s [7] much admired analyses on how the state and its partners in the business community control the media for propaganda appears conspicuous in its absence in the Nepali context. While this would surely work wonders for any attestation of media freedom in Nepal, Chomsky’s logic could well be applied to expose a curiosity: If the state controls the media in the developed democracies in the manner that Chomsky says it does, who controls the media in Nepal? One could perhaps deduce that, in accordance to Chomsky’s logic, the state and business, in the Nepali case, are not as hand in glove as in Chomsky’s media perspective. But in this instance in Nepal, the organized business sector, the Federation of Nepali Chambers of Commerce and Industry and the Chamber of Commerce appear to be among the few in the professionally organized sector that have openly endorsed the King’s move under Article 127 and, indeed, even actively participated in it. If anything, this rare political gesture by an otherwise wary business community should indicate the severity of the crisis in Nepal apart from raising questions as to its non-corroboration or reflection in the media defying Chomsky’s classical mould.

13. Partisan media or not, non-empirical academics or otherwise, expert and generalist, foreign and national, all appear to have a rare convergence of view that the crisis in Nepal is a consequence of a series of delinquent neglect in the sphere of governance that helped foster the Maoist demand for change and that the Maoist violence has added to the crisis.[8]In all fairness, partisan though it is, the Nepali media has contributed a fair share to the public exposure and awareness of the flaws in governance over the past decade. Even the massive repression of the Maoists under government police action found considerable coverage especially after the Maoist propaganda machine went to work in the media. As a result, public awareness at home and abroad that the crisis in Nepal is all-pervasive and, indeed, ‘national’ in nature is demonstrably high. How else does one explain the lack-luster public response to the highly publicized agitations mounted by the mainstream political parties in the country? How else can one see the less than luke-warm response of the concerned expatriate community and foreign governments to the agitation? In this sense, the media has worked. In doing so, however, one might well ask whether the media has contributed to the crisis or is helping solve it?

Setting the Standards

14. Of course, in the context of our violent conflict, the media echoes the unanimous public demand for peace. It is also very much in the forefront in voicing the widespread preference for talks along with the cessation of violence and the resort to human rights. But especially in the context of the national crisis, to call for a set of standards prescribed for the media in its coverage of the crisis/conflict/violence would surely seem appropriate here. It is for this purpose that one turns to Norwegian peace studies professor Johann Galtung.[9] He has “laid out 12 points of concern where journalism often goes wrong when dealing with violence. Each implicitly suggests more explicit remedies.

  1. Decontextualizing violence: focusing on the irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved conflicts and polarization.
  2. Dualism: reducing the number of parties in a conflict to two, when often more are involved. Stories that just focus on internal developments often ignore such outside or “external” forces as foreign governments and transnational companies.
  3. Manicheanism: portraying one side as good and demonizing the other as “evil”.
  4. Armageddon: presenting violence as inevitable, omitting alternatives.
  5. Focusing on individual acts of violence while avoiding structural causes, like poverty, government neglect, and military or police repression.
  6. Confusion: focusing only on the conflict arena (i.e., the battlefield or .location of violent incidents) but not on the forces and factors that influence the violence.
  7. Excluding and omitting the bereaved, thus never explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals of violence.
  8. Failure to explore the causes of escalation and the impact of media causes itself.
  9. Failure to explore the goals of outside interventionists, especially big powers.
  10. Failure to explore peace proposals and offer images of peaceful outcomes.
  11. Confusing cease-fires and negotiations with actual peace.
  12. Omitting reconciliation: conflicts tend to reemerge if attention is not paid to efforts to heal fractured societies. When news about attempts to resolve conflicts are absent, fatalism is reinforced. That can help engender even more violence, when people have no images or information about possible peaceful outcomes and the promise of healing.”

15. This working list is fully reproduced here also to determine for ourselves a set of standards by which to gauge our performance in media coverage so far. Especially in the context of a national crisis, common sense would dictate that deviations would be non-professional and surely counter-productive.

External/Internal

16. Mana Ranjan Josse’s paper quoted here elsewhere ends with a chapter “Quo Vadis Nepal?” where he has raised questions that need to be answered on the crisis in Nepal.[10] In the context of a media role in the national crisis perhaps answering these would also be tantamount to helping solve the crisis and so its reproduction here:

  • “ Is the Maoists’ move for peace for real or merely a time buying strategy akin to that in 2001?
  • Would the Royal Nepal Army accept all Maoist conditionalities, including that it incorporate the Maoist militia?
  • Is India’s official stance on the Maoists’ “People’s War” genuine or, as many in Nepal still believe, merely a convenient cover for a covert strategy of support with a view to bring her monarch down a la Sikkim?
  • Would post-9/11, post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq America stomach rule by an extreme communist party in Nepal, if it comes to that?
  • How far do India’s and America’s interests in Nepal, vis-à-vis the current situation, converge and where do they diverge, if they do?
  • Would China remain serenely unconcerned if the Sikkim scenario is to be replayed in Nepal?
  • Would a military coup be possible?
  • Is the ongoing agitation directed squarely against the king entirely homegrown and, if not, where might its roots lie.”

17. These questions are somber, indeed. Considering that they were posited much before ‘republican’ voices and anti-monarchy slogans were orchestrated in the ranks of the agitating mainstream parties despite their leaderships’ calculated disassociation from such, they are by no means irrelevant to the Nepali crisis if one is to apply Galtung’s standards prescribed above. Perhaps the media will be better able to answer these if at all the above prescriptions are applied in course of its normal coverage of the crisis in Nepal. Here, too, it has a role in the exercise of its freedoms.

18. Of course, much of Josse’s focus in the questions cited above remain in the realms of the hypothetical and, in a manner, externalizes the conflict that contributes to our national crises. For a media perspective on its internalization a clue may be found in the political curiosity of a series of constitutional crises being provoked over the years regarding the prerogative of governments to dissolve parliament and conduct elections. The constitutional crisis provoked by Deuba’s insistence on forming an electoral government needs be analyzed on previous such precedents. If anything it will give meaning to the current mainstream parties’ claim to electoral government which for the moment continues to contribute to the crisis. Indeed, it could perhaps also provide clues to the future since the Maoists, too, stake a claim on such an electoral government –for a constituent assembly/ referendum- and the linkage here is perhaps a little too glaring to have been so overlooked by our media over the years. A section of the Maoists went underground opposing the constitution after their parliamentary representation was wiped clean by a Koirala government which conducted elections. Perhaps we must use our freedoms to unravel this crisis-prone craving for participation in electoral governments and the linkage it has with electoral results. In doing so, we will surely be doing service for the future of our democracy.

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[1] For an extensive coverage of the state of the media in Nepal see, Media in Society P. Kharel, et al eds, Kathmandu: Nepal Press Institute/DANIDA, 2002. <Top>

[2] See Lal Babu Yadav’s paper “Role of Media in Promoting Good GovernanceTelegraph Weekly seminar, December, 2001. Of relevance to this paper will also be Yadav’s question in his paper “Is the right to information context-free?” and his contention that there is a dearth of empirical comprehension and research on whether a. media has promoted freedom in the country; b. media has promoted education; c. media has curbed corruption; d. media is owned by independent persons; e. there is real competition among the media for content improvement and quality and f. whether media has broadened its reach to capture the diversity and complexity of Nepali life and provided access to public information. <Top>

[3] Workshop on “Freedom of Information during a State of Emergency” jointly organized by the Nepal Press Institute and the Federation of Nepalese Journalists in cooperation with The American Center, June 4-5 2002. <Top>

[4]Gokul Pokhrel’s paper which relates the crisis till extension is useful in the current context also because it elucidates upon the freedoms that can be impinged upon constitutionally upon invocation of Article 115. Also of current relevance would be a perusal of Ananda Aditya’s comparative study of “Forms and Frequencies of Restrictions in Media” produced at the workshop. <Top>

[5] Jurgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action Vols.1 & 2 Trans.: Thomas McCarthy, Boston: Polity Press, 1995. Of course, one could argues that the media would first have to comprehend the real proportions of the national crisis in order to help prompt the essential national consensus for socialization. <Top>

[6] M. R. Josse, “Nepal: Politics of Stalemate, Confusion and Uncertainty” paper presented at a regional seminar organized in Islamabad, by the Institute of Regional Studies, May 26,2003, p. 1. <Top>

[7] Media Control by Noam Chomsky, Seven Stories Press; Ripples before the storm by Noam Chomsky, source: Al Ahram Weekly & Noam Chomsky, http//www.ahram.org.eg/weekly. <Top>

[8] Even the partisan media must now dutifully report prominent politicians who publicly advocate the acceptance of past ‘mistakes’. A plethora of books and compilations have emerged in the academic sector provoking snipes of how the conflict in Nepal has become an industry. Of the publications a few come to mind as reference, Ananda P. Srestha and Shiv Raj Dahal eds. Issues of Governance in Nepal,Kathmandu: NEFAS/FES 2001; Dhruba Kumar, ed. Domestic Conflict and Crisis of Governability in Nepal, Kathmandu: CNAS, 2000; Ananda Shrestha and Hari Uprety eds. Conflict Resolution & Governance in Nepal, Kathmandu: NEFAS/FES 2000, etc. The list can go on. <Top>

[9] “12 Ways the Media Misreport Violence” by Johan Galtung, source: http://www.mediachannel.org/views/dissector/coveringviolence.shtml <Top>

[10] Pg 31 <Top>

 
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