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Role of Press in Constituent Assembly Elections in Nepal

Dev Raj Dahal, Head, FES Nepal


The date April 10, 2008 will be very eventful for Nepal. For the first time in the nation's history citizens of Nepal will elect their 601-member Constituent Assembly (CA) to write a new constitution. This will also be eventful because the expectation generated by CA for an inclusive state, democracy rooted in popular sovereignty and sustainable peace will be set on a litmus test. In this context, it is important for the Nepalese press to keep the hope of citizens alive and kicking by serving key roles in democratic initiatives, democratic consolidation, democratic expansion and democratic deepening. Truly independent press spreads democratic ideology and plays an important role in the maintenance of the democratic system. It signifies a program of public rationality and a voice of the voiceless.

Since press is the prime channel of transmitting electoral messages, politics in Nepal will be played out increasingly in communicative space. Press can contribute to ease the nation's transition process by creating election-friendly environment, democratizing the public sphere and legitimizing political initiatives. These factors are essential to strengthen the integrative capacity of the political system and its external adaptability and open the citizens' mind to universal principles of democracy, human rights and rule of law. But, the public function of the press is largely contingent on its own framework of ownership, finance, control and regulation.

In Nepal, politicians talk more to the press than among themselves. It is the press that shapes their overall cognitive understanding about politics. A strong identification of citizens with political parties steered by the press provides greater motivation to vote and engage in politics. But, party is only a part of society, not the whole. The articulation of partisan contents marks the partial reporting of political truth. It mirrors only the ideological representation of society and contributes less to democratic will-formation. Citizenship begins with the membership of the state; therefore, civic responsibility of the Nepali press requires a contribution to public opinion formation. In this process, the Nepalese press has to provide civic awareness to citizens, equip them with participatory information and resources, stimulate active public engagement and foster meaningful dialogue and ownership of public in the agenda-setting of CA process.

Familiarization of citizens with various ideas and issues such as knowledge about the transition management, objectives of the CA, election system and processes, registration of voters, nomination of candidates, transparency of election process, neutrality of electoral and security officials, monitoring of code of conduct, roles of various agencies in improving the election environment, monitoring of human rights, re-designing the state, inclusive dispensation, durable peace, etc is essential to provide the citizens a greater measure of free will and self-confidence and enable them to use their own political choice.
The press has to work together with civil society and citizens to prevent electoral malpractices, such as vote buying and selling, character assassination of candidates, belittling national sensitiveness, social harmony and decent voting behavior, abuses of the state and market power, etc and enthuse in citizens a sense of reason, conscience and civic responsibility. The ability of press in doing so places it in a esteemed position to make political decisions with sufficient bearing for the nation and people.


How does the Nepalese press educate citizens about the CA elections and make their election messages inclusive of social, economic and political diversity of the nation? How can it guarantee the voice, visibility and representation of excluded, marginalized and women in the CA and liberate citizens from a culture of silence, misery and resignation? How can the illiterate and poor be stimulated to participate in the election as stakeholding equal citizens? There are quite a few strategies for the press to adopt while framing effective political discourse and making democracy a responsive rule:

Key Strategies

Facts inform public opinions
Citizens' capacity to exercise their constitutional and human rights and form voting preference rest on basic political knowledge and access to free flow of information. The press truly mirrors the public life of society in full political detail as it expresses words, images and sounds and induces preferred degree of learning and behavioral effects. The straight language the press uses for communication of the CA election messages can help to moderate the behavior of citizens already radicalized by aspiration-fueled politics. A responsible press facilitates free exchange of ideas about the CA and voters information vital to citizens' informed participation. Election-friednly environment provides every citizen autonomous power to deliberate and act without any historical and social constraints. Comparative and historical knowledge about the procedures of CA can provide them true civic consciousness, knowledge and disposition for peaceful engagement and understand the tension between human rights and majority rule, democracy and constitutionalism, constitutional rights and duties and organization and aspirations.

But, if press is driven solely by its own institutional interests and ideological passions the facts it interprets and informs will produce contesting results. If opinions are not based on correct facts and analysis, the validity of public opinion suffers a fatal fault. Unlike periodic elections to select leadership for governance the CA election has broader purpose to spell out the collective vision of the nation to be realized through constitutional governance. Therefore, projection of negative image of each other in a binary code of friend and foe or presentation of adversarial show of candidates and political parties can erode public trust in democratic process.

Public opinion builds public character
Judgment and opinion of the press can become valid only when they are socially and politically representative in character. This requires Nepalese press to use its imagination and thinking creatively. Obviously, by using its cognitive and reflective imagination and deliberating with citizens it can bridge the gap between journalists' concepts and citizens' world views and engage in thinking with them. It helps the press not to impose its own standards of knowledge and cognition on citizens' lives but to learn from them and, in turn, provide them rational choice. As a mutually reinforcing medium between the system and the life-world, independent press often contests the boundaries of socially constructed public and private realm for men and women and hierarchically shaped institutional order which puts underclass in the rock bottom of social development. A responsible press can reform and rationalize many irrational codes of society for freedom, equality, inclusion and peace, provide factual communication, exchange common convictions and generate mutual expectations about the final product of CA. A strong sense of civic identity entails active participation of citizens in deliberation and building public character. The public interest of press is quite different from their private interests. It is their public character that can socialize and prepare citizens for democratic roles and seek their active consent and compliance through ballot box.

Well-grounded opinion fosters critical debates
Formation of valid public opinion depends on critical debates about electoral context whether there is a level playing field for all. Press should, therefore, debate about legitimate roles of political parties and individual candidates, the government, security agencies, the Election Commission and the rules of the game articulated in election laws and code of conduct. It has to take into account the long-term perspectives of all sides, the plurality of opinions and diversity of views and stimulate voluntary participation of citizens in the achievement of common good. The critical debates require not the self-absorption of press in its own problems but serious reflection about citizens' rights and duties and enable them to exercise them. Mere shouting at each other contributes little to critical public debates.

Critical Debate transforms passive people into attentive citizens
The press plays critical rule in constructing reasoned dialogues across various identities of people for political integration. Articulation of three types of compensations in the CA laws has broadened the public sphere to include more and more citizens, such as special representation rights for disadvantaged groups, women, Dalits and people of remote areas; multi-cultural rights for ethnic and indigenous people; and self-governance rights for people of various regions including Madhesh through federalism. It is expected to increase the participation of higher number of Nepali citizens into election politics and higher turn out of voters. Establishment of justice and redistributive policies in the political culture support social integration of poor and marginalized citizens into the political process and open up the institutions of governance to the public.

Politics of CA has opened the minds and spirits of citizens towards public interests and allowed them for sharing a common world and a common space of the nation-state. It is in this space public concerns are articulated from different standpoints by political parties and individual candidates. To be engaged in public debate means actively express constitutional views on media platforms such as seminars, peaceful demonstration, canvassing people for their active participation, writing letters to the editor, speaking in public forums about national issues, etc. The decision of the CA affects the life of everybody. Therefore, creating a stake of everybody in the election links them to national stage and participation.

Political socialization helps the construction of national identity
One of the key democratic functions of the press is political socialization-- training of people into citizenship rights and duties, respect to others' legitimate views and civilized co-existence of all. It is also a process of acculturation of people into the structure and functions of political system and its environment and even politicization by which various identities of societies, such as caste, class, gender, ethnicity, religions and regions can be transformed into a single national identity-Nepali citizen.

Modern society is largely mediazed one as family, religion and schools are becoming feeble in the socialization of citizens. The emergence of new public sphere in which press is situated has occupied a centrality of universalistic principles of human rights, rule of law, electoral legitimacy and social justice. As a result, majoritarian culture has been contested by minorities in a communicative space in favor of a shared national identity. The press reports about these universal spirits to various citizens and links them to contextual debate about the pre-election environment, the actual voting and the post-election political process of forming the legitimate CA. These roles are essential to resolve various types of electoral problem, maintain electoral integrity as well as provide guarantee for the political integration of increasingly heterogeneous society.

The level of citizen participation in elections as cognitive, effective and evaluative citizens defines their political culture. National identity-formation, however, is a long-term process of struggle and renegotiation of a social contract, a process in which press articulates and exposes citizens to competing conceptions of social and political good and connects democracy with the nation-state. In Nepal, one can however see the location of press in various functions-consciousness-generating, event-provoking, regimenting critical mind and providing false consciousness. Those not generating true consciousness is problematic in terms of attaching the trust and loyalty of citizens to democracy. A free, fair and credible CA election demands active engagement of press in imparting political education which provides the citizens options on issues of public interest.

Non-Violent Communication generates mutual trust and reconciliation
In the context of high political dynamics electoral competition among various political parties and independent candidates generates distorted communication over multiple symbols like the state, democracy, federalism, class, ethnicity, nation and territoriality and often creates reciprocal mistrust, to the misrepresentation of public communication. In a conflict-ridden country like Nepal, press has to pro-actively engage in finding common grounds and define journalism as a normative public craft to reduce violence in society. Only then they can transcend the self-centered nature of communication to capture the essence of democratic values and norms to generate trust and reconciliation in society. It is within the national communicative boundaries that conflicts can be resolved and redistributive justice executed. Conflict and post-conflict role of the press rests on non-violent communication, recovery, reconciliation and peace building.

Autonomy of press in news coverage is a precondition to its democratic functions
The politics of CA is not only about the self- assertion of politicians for power but about seeking a common good -promulgation of a modern new constitution. Turning the CA into a game of winner and loser will be self-defeating as the loser will not have any stake and interest into the outcome of election. Press should, therefore, stress on the formation of a common ground so that election can release the potential for political integration of Nepalese society and contribute to strengthening national sovereignty and national integrity. Communication devoid of public substance is nothing because it only detonates ritualistic sound-bite, sensesnalization, fuzzy infotainment, partisan control and manipulation and depoliticization of citizens. This marks the decline of democracy. The democratic function of the press requires solution-oriented journalism.

Ideally, public sphere of the press is regarded autonomous of the interest groups of society so that every citizen can share this sphere equally. Inequality in access to daily public communication violates right to information and makes citizens powerless. It tears their attachment with the nation-state, the very base of civic patriotism. A civic culture requires not only political equality but also civic competence of citizens to participate, represent, cast vote, involve in public activities and influence decisions. Press can act as a medium in this whole process and demolish each political party's fundamentalist recourse that it is the best party and the rest the most evil. Fundamentalism removes the common ground, escalates the spiral of mistrust, distorts communication and relapses the country again into brutal violence. The press should work hard to liberate democracy from violence.

Democracy consolidation rests on building civic competence of citizens
Civic education differs from other two types of education-one that instrumentalizes citizens and the other one indoctrinates them. Instrumental rationality tends to control thought, manufactures consent and drowns the voice of reason, public opinion and democratic will-formation. Indoctrination exposes them into conformity to particular ideology or a sense of false consciousness and gain unrealistic picture of society. In this sense, civic education is emancipatory in nature because it gives the citizens a critical sense of inquiry in thinking, judgment and action about the entire political and electoral issues at hand. A democratic CA election, therefore, must avoid the politics of negation of the other for it fosters militant democracy, no freedom to its competitor and no space for opposition. Responsible press must fight the negative, anti-public and anti-democratic orientation of politics because ethics of journalism itself is rooted in defense of the public interest.

Civic culture is the keystone of democracy consolidation
Democracy requires citizens to make critical choices on public policy matters. Sustained access to information and a balance between the world of public politics and that of personal morality provide the citizens an ability to rationally judge the national issues at stake. Information revolution has made knowledge a key to the empowerment of citizens in public affairs. The press frames citizens' perception of belonging to a national political community and a shared future. A responsible press can thus socialize citizens for a culture of democracy and peace and reshape the development of a civic political culture that is rational, tolerant and humane.

Information revolution has mediazed democracy, expanded public sphere and opened the possibility for a new regime of participatory democracy. Confirming this spirit the Interim Constitution of Nepal has enlarged the concept of citizenship from political sphere to economic, social and ecological spheres and new form of accountability of the governance to citizens' various needs, concerns, interests and aspirations. What is required is to improve the conditions of modernity-education, economy, technology, organization and leadership. Deliberation on these matters can enable the citizens to make a distinction between moral judgment which is private view and political judgment which concerns a larger public and society and their sustained quest for constitutional state.


The fundamental objective of Nepalese media now is to provide citizens-both male and female-- a comprehensive knowledge of what they are expected to know about vital national issues, undistorted knowledge and information, provide solution to the ills of society in terms of the contamination of communication. To make politics public citizens should be given critical knowledge about civic education. Only then, politics can foster peace through every one's stake in it and inculcates a sense of gender, inter-generational and social justice at all levels of society. Injustice and invisibility perpetuate the breakdown of communication. Press can play an important role to make democracy for everybody by reaching to even the passive and alienated populace and sensitizing them on public questions. By providing critical information responsible press nurtures an informed society capable of making vital choices in the CA process and contributing towards the emancipatory potential of rationality embodied in participatory democracy.

Note: Keynote address presented at a seminar "Role of Press in CA Election" organized by Nepal Press Union (NPU) in cooperation with Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) at Kathmandu on March 24, 2008.

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