| 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.
A National Crisis?
2. To the chagrin of media professionals,
however, the Nepali medias longstanding linkages with
the political establishment marring professional coverage in
preference of partisan or biased political coverage holds.
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.
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.
5. The opposition to the emergency by Deubas
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 Deubas 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
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 Habermass
Theory of Communicative Action.
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 kings
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.
As yet, general media coverage has tended to view the kings
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 communitys 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 Kings
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 Chomskys
 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, Chomskys 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 Chomskys logic, the state
and business, in the Nepali case, are not as hand in glove as
in Chomskys 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 Kings 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 Chomskys 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.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.
He has laid out 12 points of concern where journalism
often goes wrong when dealing with violence. Each implicitly
suggests more explicit remedies.
- Decontextualizing violence: focusing
on the irrational without looking at the reasons for unresolved
conflicts and polarization.
- 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.
- Manicheanism: portraying one side
as good and demonizing the other as evil.
- Armageddon: presenting violence
as inevitable, omitting alternatives.
- Focusing on individual acts of violence
while avoiding structural causes, like poverty, government
neglect, and military or police repression.
- 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
- Excluding and omitting the bereaved,
thus never explaining why there are acts of revenge and spirals
- Failure to explore the causes of
escalation and the impact of media causes itself.
- Failure to explore the goals of
outside interventionists, especially big powers.
- Failure to explore peace proposals
and offer images of peaceful outcomes.
- Confusing cease-fires and negotiations
with actual peace.
- 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.
16. Mana Ranjan Josses
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. 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
- Would the Royal Nepal Army accept all Maoist
conditionalities, including that it incorporate the Maoist
- Is Indias official stance on the
Maoists Peoples 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 Indias and Americas
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 Galtungs 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 Josses 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 Deubas
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.
 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,
 See Lal Babu Yadavs
paper Role of Media in Promoting Good Governance
Telegraph Weekly seminar, December, 2001. Of relevance
to this paper will also be Yadavs 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>
 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
Gokul Pokhrels 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
Adityas comparative study of Forms and Frequencies
of Restrictions in Media produced at the workshop.
 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>
 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>
 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.
 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>
 12 Ways the Media
Misreport Violence by Johan Galtung, source: http://www.mediachannel.org/views/dissector/coveringviolence.shtml
 Pg 31 <Top>