New Nepal: What kind of media?

P. Kharel

President, Press Institute, Nepal

Addressing the philosophical question of what kind of media there ought to be in a “new” Nepal, there is first the need to define politically what exactly “new” Nepal signifies. That is not a frivolous consideration as it has become increasingly evident that a consensus on the term may indeed be elusive. There are certainly a whole bunch of media-related issues or priorities that should be addressed in any future political order, particularly one that is premised on so bold, if ambiguous, a goal. Among them would be to ensure that the vital element of accuracy in news reports is, if not totally guaranteed, greatly enhanced. For the accuracy factor in Nepali journalism is either woefully absent or rudely given short shrift. Theoretically, it is possible to envisage that with increased media competition, the general public, or consumer of media products, would take care of that condition.

Considering that media in even very developed societies have not always covered themselves in glory the accuracy of reporting criteria, # it may not be easy for the Nepali media to achieve a quantum leap forward in this respect any time soon. Accuracy, naturally, involves not merely accuracy of relevant or bald facts and figures or even ensuring that headlines portray the true essence of the story covered but also a dedicated commitment by media organizations themselves to ensure that their selection or editing is not deliberately executed in such a way as to distort the essential message of what ought to be accurately or fairly reported. Perhaps a non-governmental initiative on such a media front could be instrumental in elevating the degree of accuracy and thereby enhancing the overall media quality in a “new” Nepal.

According to Feilitzen and Carlsson [1999: 24], critical thinking means “the ability to distinguish between fantasy and reality, understanding that the media messages are constructions with certain ends, understanding the economic, political, social and cultural role of the media in the local/global communities, understanding one’s own and other groups’ democratic rights, negotiation and resistance, cultural identity and citizenship”.

Along with the above, it will be appropriate in a more responsible media society, if greater emphasis is paid to the important aspect of follow-ups. This is because far too often there is a slackening off of media interest in stories or developments once the element of immediacy is lost. In many instances, the “real” story or message is revealed after a dogged pursuit of the matter at hand, when the readership interest may have flagged if not disappeared altogether.

Onta [2006: 217] assesses the situation in Nepal thus: “Making up our own standards is yet more difficult in Nepal because of its significant donor dependency. ‘Nepali standards’ are good to think with for Nepali media but in a situation where even the best journalists are implicated in patronage networks arising from the clout of donor-led dollars, setting up our own independent standards is simply not easy.”

Another difficulty that needs to be tackled imaginatively concerns with enhancing the general quality of reportage, a reflection or manifestation that is due in large measure to the yawning gap between the quantitative proliferation of the media in recent times and its qualitative aspects. A sustained effort or incentive to attract some of the best and the brightest students into careers in the media would be productive in this respect. Although, as compared to the not too recent past, there has been a flow of such talent into the profession, the supply has not matched the demand.

Likewise, a sector that cries out for improvement in the “new” Nepal of the future is the area of specialization in subject matter. # Indeed, as with the case of the medical profession, the best results, particularly in complicated cases, can be expected after resort is made to specialists rather than to the general practitioner.

Search for quality:

It is true that the general level of education of journalism practitioners in Nepal currently has risen considerably over the past few decades, with the general increase in literacy and better education opportunity. However, it is highly doubtful whether this growth has been commensurate with the necessity of producing reporters and editors capable of thoroughly understanding or explaining the increasingly complex social, economic, political and diplomatic issues that form the staple of day- to-day reporting. It is after all only when reporters and editors know their subjects thoroughly that they can ask the appropriate questions, avoid being taken for a ride by resource persons and, subsequently, write up their stories in a way that is accurate and shorn of any willful slant or outright propaganda.

Reference to propaganda brings again to the fore the subject of partisan reporting—the bane of today’s overly politicized media scene in Nepal. Although such a state of affairs is perhaps understandable given the scope and nature of recent political transformations in the land, in a media utopia this negative characteristic should wither away. Closely linked to this is the question of over-sensationalism, a phenomenon that has unfortunately acquired unhappy dimensions of late. This is clearly a flaw that media in “new” Nepal can, or should, do without. Though it may be difficult to eradicate completely, since it is a product largely of cut-throat competition for ever greater numbers of consumers, efforts in recruitment of better educated entrants into the field and in-house codes of conduct should over the long run have a corrective effect.

What should not fail to be mentioned is that media that are allied to political parties and their affiliates should make that transparent to consumers. While there is nothing wrong, per se, about such media, they should not attempt to pass themselves off as independent and obtain government support meant for free and independent media. Needless to state, partisan reporting not only violates all canons of fairness and accuracy but also contributes to needlessly creating or escalating tensions in society.

Undoubtedly, there are vastly more regular news media in Nepal today than 15 years ago. The new century has recorded a dramatic growth in the broadcast sector—both radio and television. But to be too elated by the more-the-merrier attitude in this respect might not be justifiable if it is merely more of the same, with the media covering similar stories without much in-depth reports. Leading media houses are also known for going out of their way to rope in known members of political parties, who are offered their own party as their news beat. Can any professional beat that! The practice leaves the public confused and the reportage thus produced confusing. The predominance of political parties in the print media, and, of late, its predatory advances to the broadcast media do not bode well for media credibility and, indeed, democracy itself.

Moreover, political pieces, even if largely opinionated or based on speculation, dominate the news media—print and broadcast. Despite the surge in the numbers of media, very little progress is made in special interest media such as sports, entertainment, education, health, science and technology. Among the few that circulate, most are irregular or funded by non-media groups. The sources of information, the individuals approached for interviews and the newsmakers identified by the media do not adequately reflect inclusiveness. As a result, the stories sound jaded. Quite a few a few well-funded NGOs incessantly complain against the “inadequate” reporting in media regarding the issues raised by organizations that spend millions of donor money to “educate” and! or “train” journalists, judges, parliamentarians, local leaders and the like but do not think of taking some determined initiative to run media on their own to demonstrate where the good stories really are.

In “Media in Political Communication”, Dr. Sushil Raj Pandey [Kharel 2002: 60], observes: “At different levels—from a rural village of Nepal to an urban neighborhood of Kathmandu city— media work is an undertaking that has its root in the people—their interests, desires and abilities— who want nothing but the truth. The public is the recipient of the media communications and it is the public which should be empowered to have control in the form and content of the communication process. The public stake is there in development programming too.”

The more affluent media organizations whose products are mass consumed on a daily basis have the clear responsibility to begin to systematically improve their products’ quality while, at the same time, shoring up the public’s trust in the credibility and fairness of their products. This objective can be achieved to a great extent through the institution of the Ombudsman, # in the form of an independent and eminent personality, of unimpeachable integrity, preferably with media- awareness, to serve as an in-house keeper of the collective conscience, bearing in mind the need to ensure that the media product is in keeping with the ideals and expectations of a “new” Nepal.

In sum, it may be quite unrealistic to advocate or assign a one-size-fits-all role for the media in society. Similarly, it may be unreasonable to expect a uniformly satisfying performance. Informed media critics can play a useful role in ensuring, as far as it is possible in a democracy, that unfair, unethical and unprofessional practices are done away with. There is considerable scope for institutions such as the Press Council to play a corrective or moderating role, including that of ensuring that tendencies towards yellow journalism are nipped in the bud and that a fine or proper balance is maintained between the doctrine of press freedom and the citizens’ right to privacy and fair play.

Vilanilam [2005: 5] makes a plea for the benefits of technology percolating down to a much wider section, if not all sections, of people: “There is a great need for developing technologies that are essential to remove ignorance, poverty and misery of the people of the backward half of the world, who are still struggling to eke out an existence at less than a dollar a day or perhaps slightly more than a dollar a day... Technology has to have a human face.”

Although knowledge is power, it is access to the right information that empowers individuals. The rural-urban divide in information is huge in Nepal. Issues directly related to the rural areas are given the least priority. Moreover, the regular access of people in the rural regions is considerably less than what their urban counterparts obtain. The information gaps should be bridged with special thrust.

We need not only more and faster media but better media to serve the public and creating socialization and harmony where the rule of law prevails and no one is deprived of the right to free expression—factors that contribute to maintaining national integrity and promoting national interest in a democratic society. The media should encourage public debates; give due coverage to the same and offer adequate opportunities to talented people from different communities for participating as editorial staffs or as regular sources of information and events that find their way to media contents. Inclusiveness in terms of media coverage, producers and media content consumers merit a high priority than is being witnessed. For pluralism, competing thoughts and diversity in the media contribute to greater participation by different sections of society, which in turn helps create social harmony and, with it, promotes Nepal’s interest first and foremost.  Excerpts from  Sangam Institute Seminar, 2009.

References:

# Media analysts like Tungate [2005], Tunstall [1996] and Downing et al [1995] make highly critical studies of the situation. Noam Chomsky, one of the most quoted scholars in the US press, also makes profound observations in his writings.

# The effective numbers of editorial staffs in newspapers and broadcast media—perhaps averaging four each—are extremely small, notwithstanding FNJ’s claim of membership exceeding 8,000.

# Some media in the US and Scandinavian countries have the service of Ombudsman whose critical reports of the individual media paying for the job are made public, reminding the public that the media, too, are subject to errors but will do their competent best to avoid them and, when mistakes creep in, they consider it a public duty to issue corrections.

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