Dev Raj Dahal, Head
Nepalese citizens and leaders are engaged in the collective choice of national visioning process. Journalists are the effective vehicles to enable their informed participation in it. The special circumstance of Nepal—political transition from violent conflict to peace—requires working journalists to play constructive roles both to defend their rights and the rights of citizens and support the informed participation of citizens in public affairs. It is definitely challenging because of high political dynamics, erosion of governance functions and complication in the process of achieving the fundamental tasks set by the Comprehensive Peace Agreement: drafting of a democratic constitution; building inclusive constitutional state, broad-based social, economic and political reforms, durable peace and management of conflict residues. How can media workers help to achieve these goals when they themselves are demanding editorial freedom and public security? These two factors are critical to engage with the public in reflective dialogues and enforcing each others’ duties and accountabilities to restore the confidence of citizens.
The self-perception of journalists is crystal clear: powerful custodian of public interest. Any event, issue or policy the attentive public find useful is newsworthy and reported in the press. This establishes the fact that news is a public property. Any effort to privatize, stifle and deform the news undermines the very public duty journalists fiercely stand for to defend and mirror the rhythm of public mood. "Public's right to know," included into every democratic constitution thus seeks to establish free flow of information through the autonomy of media from the society's dominant structures, interests and classes.
Access to information is central to inform citizens about the essential requirement of democratic order and mitigate the social tensions fuelled by distorted communication through the power of diverse ideology, interest and identity. This is the reason "autonomy" or free-will is enthusiastically defended by journalists, publishers, owners, independent court, civil society and ordinary citizens. Without the autonomy of public sphere for deliberation and action where media is situated, neither the democratization of communication industries is possible nor it is possible to enable journalists to work in the general interest of public life. But what are the roles of working journalists have to perform in the framing of Nepal's new constitution? How can Nepalese press unions become relevant in realizing the necessary preconditions for media workers' constitutional needs? How can they become useful to synthesize the opposing conceptions of democracy and human rights political parties are hotly debating and manage the tension between popular sovereignty and constitutionalism? What are the mechanisms to make democracy a self-binding ideal? This essay intends to deal with these questions in brief.
Civic Education is the Key Role of the Media:
Journalists are the most effective mechanism in translating constitutional concepts into everyday language to make them understandable to ordinary citizens, carry out critical discourse and engage citizens in legal deliberation out of a sense of public duty. As a watchdog of democracy, the press protects the freedom and rights of citizens against the encroachment by powerful actors— government, corporate groups and even non-state militant ones. Democracy is at stake if only the powerful voice is totted up as a voice of reason. If the mini-voices of publics are consigned into invisibility, out of sight and out of picture, media suffers from a lack of a culture of pluralism and can contribute little to the formation of public opinion, democratic will-formation and national identity. Lobby groups for reasons of power, wealth and advertisement of their products tend to be enclosed rather than opened to the contesting visions and perspectives about constitutional issues. Closed systems exclude citizens and fail to cultivate a civil society—a society necessary to defend democratic ideals and practice. The socialization of people into citizenship through effective learning is crucial to increase their awareness of their duties and rights, stake in the political system and the value of conscious participation in public issues. Group-enclosed media reflect only the partial reality in news, public opinion, agenda-setting and will-formation. Only democratization of media releases the potential for a pluralist sense of justice.
The struggle of journalists to participate in the constitution making constitutes the core debate to influence the democratic evolution of the country that involves also media rules and sincere implementation of Working Journalists’ Act. The CA has entailed discursive law—making process a major criterion on constitution-making and public ownership. Working journalists have an important responsibility to defend the social justice of media workers in the government and corporate sectors, who find it difficult to maintain a balance between the values and needs required by their profession to defend and the profit imperative of media owners. But, there are grey areas too. Small media houses maintain no boundary between owners, reporters and editors as they play multiple roles and respond to Nepal’s diverse public. The sensitivity to context requires media to overcome structural injustice as media is a key rationalizer of society towards modernity, democracy and human rights and their role in instilling democratic consciousness is connected with language, bodily expression and action.
Public Interest above All other Values:
The collection of views of public figures and ordinary citizens, articles, opinions and facts on constitutional matters is important to shape or frame public agenda. Knowledge about legal, social, economic, political and ecological issues allows citizens an informed participation in public affairs and continuous rationalization of laws, norms and practices. This makes political change peaceful. Citizens require not only a great multitude of facts but varied critical and comparative "perspectives" about issues, needs and concerns. Very often in a hurry to produce first news facts get sometimes distorted, exaggerated and even concocted. Such a tendency undermines the media code and ethics as well as raises a question on their credibility. It then cannot perform perspective mediating or communicating function. The conflict-sensitivity of journalists also requires them to normatively work towards highlighting the common ground, than social divides and inform, educate and stimulate public interest in the resolution of political and constitutional questions.
Vocational Ethos precedes Personal Interest of Journalists:
Observation of the actions of politicians and constant reminders to them for their duty to drafting the new constitution are two vocational choices. Since the rules of political morality are created by politicians—journalists must adequately inform the public and provide them a critical sense of inquiry to judge their attitude, behavior and action towards their given duty as to whether they are merely jostling for power or are working to achieve the common good. The major political functions of journalists can be subsumed under five categories: aggregation of public interests; articulation of their demands; proper channeling of demands; two-way communication between politicians and society for the mediation of perspectives; and support for the public strategy of collective action in the entire course of democratization.
Freedom of the Press is a Lynchpin of Democratic system:
The element of freedom is heavily loaded with the duty and responsibility to society. The evolution of rational analytical skills has spread the values of greater openness to social change and put critical questions on dogmatism, existing institutions and legitimacy patterns. The conscious control of human ideas, institutions and practices has moved private life (domestic violence, child abuse, suicide, etc) into a matter of public and constitutional norms. This has expunged the liberal separation between the public and the private sphere and even politicized the social conception of rights. The Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 has further extended the domain of rights from the civil and political to social, economic, cultural and ecological realms and endorsed the cause of media and civil society for the liberation of the oppressed. Constitutional discourse in the media about these changing conceptions of public life is important to make change process really peaceful.
Freedom of the press in a democracy is important for the freedom of the citizens. Popular sovereignty and right to information are correlated. In earlier times, freedom entailed freedom from government authority only. But, now owing to the de-centering of power, the sources of the threat to the freedom have become diffused. The geographical, social and economic concentration of media in Nepal and the condition of structural injustice have limited the utility of "right to information" except the urban areas. Similarly, weak conditions of human have not made media persons immune to the fear of attack by cadres of the militant groups. The expansion of the communicative space is the major task of media organizations to reflect the "condition of public life" in Nepal and inspire public deliberation and visibility as well as liberate them from a sense of fear. The cut-throat competition among the media owners in the urban areas for standardization of information and commentaries have rendered them commercial while the rural and remote parts of Nepal have to face information deficit, financial crunch as advertising agencies are almost non-existent there and suffer from a lack of professionalism. This has widened the gulf between the two societies. Monopoly, censorship, inadequate laws, condition of insecurity and human rights abuses, etc weaken the power of the media to speak truth to power and foster the civic culture of linking virtuous world to real world.
Enlightenment, rather than just Information, is the aim of Good Journalism:
Public exposure to vital constitutional issues such as human rights, federalism, democracy, livelihood, elections, foreign policy issues, climate change, peace etc awakens their interest in national politics and socializes passive citizens into the participant political culture of the nation. Similarly, total conformity to the opinion of readers, viewers and listeners with the purpose of pleasing them weakens the power of the public to critically examine the issues at hand. Nepalese political parties are projecting a multi-verse of democracy. As a result, media socialization has become cacophonous. Journalists must try to find a rational option over contesting constitutional issues and find a common ground for the fair balance of interests of all concerned.
Nepal is now in the phase of concretizing its vision. The working journalists of Nepal have several roles here: they can become observers and reporters of public views, educate public on the legal issues. They can as well become participant in the constitutional discourse. But they can do so only when they work together to improve their institutional and post-conflict framework conditions of the society. Journalists can provide political education on constitutional matters if arcane constitutional and legal concepts used by the experts are translated into understandable ideas to the ordinary citizens. This alone can contribute to public opinion and rational will-formation building a genuine democratic constitution and civic political culture.