Sunday, July 16, 2006

Book Review: Media Practices In Nepal

My review of two recent books that provide rich data and background information on the historical, legal and structural dimensions of the various Nepali media.

Media Practices In Nepal. Edited by P. Kharel. Kathmandu: Nepal Press Institute, 2001, 187p.
Media Nepal 2000. Edited by P. Kharel. Kathmandu: Nepal Press Institute, 2000, 142p.

The paucity of literature on the media, especially in the developing and newly democratic countries, has provided little motivation for scholars in the field to venture in studying the media from these regions. Comparative media scholarship is largely concentrated in Western Europe, Latin America, and East Asian countries, with scanty attention to democracies in the rest of the developing world. This is equally true of the emerging democracies (and recently reversed democracies) like Nepal that have witnessed dramatic surge in free media throughout the 1990s accompanied by unique complexities characteristic of the country’s transition.

Media Practices in Nepal and Media Nepal 2000 attempt to fill in this void, not by way of microscopic analysis of media issues in the country but largely by way of examining media types and trends on the structural, historical and policy level. The forewords in the two books provide the rationale for the two books published in the last two years by Nepal Press Institute, an independent media training organization. Gokul Pokhrel, the Institute’s Chairman, observes that the media explosion and the emergence of fiercely independent media suffer from the absence of linkages and coordinated policy approach promoting the development of such vital areas as media research, publications and manpower development programs. He writes that the few books and training materials on journalism published by the Institute are far from being adequate, and that Nepal has very little [media scholarship] to share with the international community. (Forward, MP, 2001 & MN, 2000)

The two books provide a broad introduction to the media issues in Nepal. The papers in the book, written mostly by media practitioners with years of professional experience, can basically be described as status reports or textbook articles that lack strong conceptual and methodological framework. Most of the articles are highly opinionated, some providing descriptive facts and figures, and only a few attempting to provide empirical bases for the claims made. Topics discussed include history of the various types of media in the country, media trends since the restoration of democracy in 1990, problems and prospects in the field, ethical and legal issues, and development communication. In terms of hotly debated issues, the books address freedom of the press, right to information, professionalism, investment, and commercialization.

While Media Practices is devoted to the examination of the practice of journalistic ideals such as freedom of expression and opinion, ethics, and development communication, Media Nepal is focused on assessing the state of the different types of media— daily newspaper, weekly newspaper, radio, and television.

Media Practices carries five articles. In the introductory chapter, P. Kharel (“Media Issues To Watch”) concentrates on two key areas: right to information, and media investment/marketing. He argues that the lack of Right to Information Act in Nepal has hampered the free flow of information in the country despite the constitutional provision for such an Act. Public institutions continue to withhold information vital for popular participation. As a result, their accountability, transparency, and credibility are under suspicion. (p.6) Pluralism of ideas and free public debate is also hampered by the government monopoly of broadcast media, and the limited outreach of private media. (p.8) Little is known about the media, too. The problem is compounded by haphazard and unrealistic investment spree in the media sector, the undersized advertisement industry, the lack of transparent accounting of media monies, continued politicization of the bulk of the media, the lack of professional manpower, and the lack of adequate channels of information. These all combine to influence the content of the media. (p.16)

Jan Sharma’s (“Media Situation: Trends and Immerging Issues Since 1990”) essay is based on the notion that participatory and interactive media are vital for democracy, sustainable development and national integration. He provides a historical perspective on the mass media, examines their current status, and identifies the key issues and challenges. Historically, he writes, Nepali media have experienced little freedom—the controlled environment until the end of Rana autocracy in 1950, punctuated by a decade of press freedom, continued throughout the reigns of two kings, Mahendra, and his son Birendra, until 1990. (p.22-28) The restoration of democracy in 1990 and the formulation of liberal communication policies have helped in the proliferation of media, but the government continues to be reluctant to privatize the state-run media, and to trust the increasingly popular private broadcast operators. Print media’s growth, from 481 in 1990 to 1,536 in 2000, is dramatic but the surge does not match well with the quality of content, circulation, readership and access, regional, cultural and linguistic representation, and advertisement market. (p.28-36) Under the provision of a 1993-licensing scheme, there are now more than a dozen private FM radio stations in the country, but licensing procedures are too cumbersome and by and large, radio continues to be government monopoly. (p.36-40) Television, continues to be “a tool of political propaganda”, is still technologically lacking, and its outreach is limited. Most major publications are online, but the Internet media is still in a formative stage, with an extremely small number of people having access to the web. (p.43-47)

Sharma writes that the Nepali media is in a state of transition and continues to struggle to define its role in multi-party democracy. He credits the media as having played significant role in the process of political acculturation, enriching the unique Nepali political culture and values. Yet it remains effectively under the control of either the government or political parties. (p.47) The nexus between the press, politicians and businessmen; continued dominance of partisan press and their misinformation; the total disregard for media in vital inputs in planning and implementing development programs have contributed to this dismal scenario. (p.48) To widen the access to information as well as to exercise the right to information, he recommends an interactive relationship between the government and the media, a thorough review to redefine and reinforce the roles and responsibilities of various media institutions, and encouraging not just downward flow of information, from the government and institutions to the public, but also upward flow of information. (p.48-49) Similarly, he writes that Nepali media is far from realizing institutional independence and freedom, journalism as a career is socially ignored, professionally weak, economically insecure, and politically vulnerable. Study on what can be done to address these issues has not been done. (p.50) He identifies the major issues that have dominated the debate on the role of media in Nepal, which include privatization of government owned media, scrutiny of the flow of foreign money in media, liberalization of licensing for FM broadcast and community radios, fair and balanced representation of women in media, independent judiciary, viable political parties, individual freedom and liberty to express one’s views without intimidation. (p. 48-54) A very long list, indeed.

The question of press freedom dominates many of the essays in both books. M. R. Jossee’s (“Freedom of Expression and Opinion: Reflections Through The Lens of Two Dailies”) essay attempts to assess the extent of freedom the two newspapers enjoy in reporting or publishing news and opinion. The author, however, does not clarify his categories of “freedom”, though his focus is primarily political freedom. The essay is based on a comparative study of two newspapers during a period of two weeks (Aug 25-Sept 7, 2000). His textual analysis of editorial content in The Kathmandu Post, a private daily, and The Rising Nepal, a government-owned daily, revealed that the Post enjoyed far wider latitude of editorial freedom than the Rising Nepal. He also found that the latter newspaper provided far greater attention to the government and the ruling party than to the opposition, but it seemed to make greater effort at freely covering non-political items. On the other hand, the Post appeared generally critical of the government and the interest groups, but sometimes did not use responsibly the freedom it enjoyed. (p.90)

Lal Deosa Rai (“Ethical and Legal Issues”) cautiously doubts the relevancy in Nepal of the western values of freedom of expression, and media ethics. He attempts to define such values from a Hindu-Buddhist perspective. He writes that the practice of journalism, the role of mass media, and the process of mass communication have started to become a reality of life in Nepal only in recent decades. (p. 140) Nepali media have grown by world standard into a smaller but potential media system. (p.100) But ethical and legal frameworks governing the media have not been effective since they are based on alien value systems. He argues that the media, particularly in the private sector, have raised the fundamental issue of continuity and change of Nepali ethics both in the ideals and normative orientations of the cultural values of Dharma or Dhamma, a way of life that emphasizes perfection, respect for customs and traditions, truthfulness, forthrightness, gentleness, compassion, respect for another person dignity, and non-violence. (p.139-140) However, he argues that the media is yet to discover the meanings of bedrock values of Dhamma for application in the profession of journalism to bring together the legal and ethical system at the functional level. (p.98, 104)

Rai does not make outright rejection of western libertarian values now generally adhered to by the Nepali media, but calls for some clearly acceptable norms and values based on Hindu-Buddhist ethics to survive the alien value systems, and to check on the cultural characteristics that are diametrically at odds with the cultural moorings and value systems of Nepal. (p.98-99) However, he cannot fully articulate how such as new ethics could be developed and pursued. His essay also provides an extensive analysis of the gradual emergence of press freedom in the last century, tracing changes and reforms made in over half a dozen press legislations, starting with the sanad (Special Press Decree), issued by the autocratic Ranas following the launch of Gorkhapatra, the first newspaper in 1901, to Press and Publication Act of 1992, which is considered on a par with most liberal press laws.

Pius Mishra (“Development Communication: Past and Present”) discusses development communication in Nepal, another hotly debated concept in recent years. His analysis of Nepal’s development communication is preceded by brief examination of theories that underline development communication—diffusion of innovation, two-step flow theory, and interpersonal communication. Mishra provides a good overview of efforts in development communication initiated by the government in sectors like agriculture, health, local development, education, forest and social conservation. However, he argues that the National Communication Policy 1992 is not very encouraging since it does not have a separate policy on development communication. (p.149) His analysis of development communication emphasizing national identity, integration, creation of public awareness, promoting people’s participation, and rural development is largely based on the fragments of communication policies relevant to development, scattered across policy papers of governments institutions such as Radio Nepal, Information Department, Gorkhapatra Corporation, and Nepal Television. At the end of the chapter, Mishra provides two case studies of development communication campaigns that proved effective in influencing the desired outcome. (p.159-182) The first campaign, conducted by World View International, was aimed at nutritional blindness prevention in central Nepal. The other campaign, conducted by CEAPRED, a Nepali NGO, was aimed at income generation through vegetable farming. In both cases, the researchers adopted a multi-media approach, including human interaction (Women volunteers), folk singers, video, radio, literacy and training (school teachers, training etc.), and found these media effective in motivating the subjects to consume green vegetables, or to work together for generating higher levels of income. Mishra’s cases, however, do not provide the methodological details, such as how reliable the findings could be in cases of self-report, neither does it explain if each of these studies had fromed a control group.

In brief, Media Practices deals with a number of pertinent, wide-ranging contemporary media issues in Nepal, often without clear theoretical and conceptual bases. For instance, recurrent and key terminologies such as media freedom, and independence are taken for granted. Also, there are several overlaps in terms of media history, recent trends and problems.

The other book, Media Nepal 2000, assesses the status of different types of media in terms of their historical development, institutional structure, legal framework, and content. These are detailed chapters that provide comprehensive picture of the evolution of daily and weekly newspapers, radio, and television. P. Kharel’s (“An Overview”) introductory chapter briefly touches, once again, on freedom and right to information, arguing that the liberal constitutional set up does provide a congenial environment for the growth of media sector, but the media are still to emerge as credible and professional entities.

The question of professionalism, loosely defined as journalistic craft or workmanship, is probed by Dhruba Hari Adhikari (“Daily Newspapers: In Quest of Greater Professionalism”). Like most authors in both books, he provides a detailed historical overview of the media, applauding the growth of the sector and lamenting on the generally poor quality of content. He analyzes in random a series of stories that went wrong in the major national newspapers, and concludes that not only the government owned media such as National News Agency, Gorkhapatra daily or the Rising Nepal daily, but also private sector national dailies-- Kantipur, Himalaya Times, and Samacharpatra-- provide a number of instances of frivolous, inaccurate, libelous, misleading, indecent, and biased reporting. (p.32-43) Periodic training of journalists, and regular editorial evaluation of content could be the corrective measures recommended by the author.

Som Nath Gimire’s (“Weekly Newspapers: Strides Over the Years”) paper is focused on the weekly tabloid newspapers, whose number jumped from 370 in pre-1990 period to 994 in the post-1990 period. He provides a historical overview of the weeklies since 1898, their crucial role in the restoration of democracy in 1990, and discusses current problems and prospects. He writes that the weeklies, published in 22 different languages, and mostly concentrated in the capital city, lowland Terai districts, and other urban areas, continue to be critical sources of alternative information, but they often lack professionalism, objectivity, and institutional independence; indulge in partisan politics, and libelous reporting. (p.53-69) The few positive trends, such as increased emphasis on professionalism in some Kathmandu-based tabloids, however, are overshadowed by the general climate representative of the majority of weeklies.

Broadcast media, too, have seen an unprecedented growth during the past decade. Binod Bhattarai (“Radio: Sounds of Openness”) provides an overview of the history of radio broadcasting in Nepal, since the inception of state-run radio in 1947. His focus, however, is on the post-1990 democratic Nepal, a period that has seen the establishment of a dozen or so private FM broadcasting companies under an increasingly liberal policy environment.

Yet he suggests that the legal and policy frameworks governing the licensing process continue to be exorbitant and burdensome. He also looks at the programming on radio, and notes that, in particular, hybridization or improper use of language, excessive entertainment and foreign content, and government ban on broadcasting news have been the major concerns. (p. 108). Alternatively, independent community radios’ programming has been largely “serious”, meaning development oriented programs based on cultural values of the communities. He calls for an independent regulatory authority that can regularly monitor programming; hear public grievances and complaints regarding radio content. Other suggestions include, selective privatization of the AM channels in government owned national radio, and adequate training of manpower. (p.118-119). It can be deduced that in a country where the national radio broadcasts news in 15 different languages, and where linguistic, geographic and cultural diversities are the hall marks of a largely oral society, community radio may emerge as the principal medium of mass communication, particularly in media-poor environments, irrespective of the nature of its content.

The final chapter is focused on the development of television in Nepal. Shyam Bahadur K.C. (“Television in Nepal: Opportunities and Challenges”) traces the history of Nepal Television (NTV) from its inception in 1985, and observes that the difficult mountain terrain, lack of technological sophistication, limited outreach, poor and culturally-disconnected programming, lack of capital and human resources have hampered its growth. Additionally, stiff competition with foreign channels and local cable networks, lack of electricity in more than 80 percent of Nepali homes, and government regulations regarding programming have hindered the development of a truly healthy and democratic television. K.C. is critical of the government’s monitoring scheme and argues that such monitoring under the label of “nationalism, constitutional framework and cultural values” is no more than censoring media content, leaving the field open to foreign channels. (p.139)

In conclusion, both books provide rich data and background information on the historical, legal and structural dimensions of the various Nepali media. At best, these books provide a very good introduction to unique characteristics of the infant but fast-expanding media from the Himalayan Kingdom. The authors help us identify some key typologies characteristic of media studies in many developing and emerging democracies— continued legacy of government control on media, though in subtle forms; heavy emphasis on legal and structural reforms, continued reflection on journalistic notions of freedom, independence, information, professionalism, and ethics; too much focus on government-press relationship; general lack of discourse on the audience, media content, and media economics, arguably very critical factors in media studies; concern with foreign media influences, among others.

Given the country’s distinct geographic, developmental, cultural and historical features, these typologies may be explained as having unique bearing on the democratic transition in Nepal. Finally, it must be mentioned that the books could have been edited much better. The poor editing is evident in the inconsistent and missing citations, redundancies and recurrent overlaps. Above all, the introductory chapter appears superficial; it does not discuss the conceptual, methodological and theoretical justifications for the articles contributed in these two books.

Published in the Nepal Monitor, July 15, 2006