Thursday, April 16, 2009

Monitoring Coverage of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly Elections

This appeared in the book  Media and Elections: A Handbook,  published by the Asia-Pacific Institute of Broadcasting Development, 2010, pp. 69-72.

Dharma Adhikari
Normative theories of the press often inform us that free media, because of their capacity to scrutinize the powerful, play an indispensable role in the proper functioning of a democracy. And media in a transitional democracy struggling with the issues of peace-building or democratic elections are burdened with additional roles, such as securing peace and educating the voters. Nepal is one such recent example.

The historic Constituent Assembly (CA) elections of April 2008 served a rare opportunity for news media of the new Himalayan republic to demonstrate their highest possible professional standards. It was a daunting task for the press, which suffered continued censorship and intimidation for much of the past decade during the Maoist civil war. As many as two dozen journalists were killed in the line of duty and scores were maimed and displaced.

Reporting conditions during the campaign season were far from ideal. The pre-election period was rife with regional ethno-political tensions in Tarai, the country’s southern plains. Emotions ran high, rumors circulated, and major political parties complained that the government media, under the control of Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), were being used as that party’s propaganda machine. The Maoists countered that big media, a reference to private sector news organizations, were anti-people, capitalist and against peace.

Critics feared that the media could become the battleground for political spin and manipulation. The broadcast media’s wider access to the electorate (150 radio stations and 9 television channels in a country of 30 million people) and their perceived immediate effects on voters and candidates also added to the Election Commission’s anxieties.

Experiences elsewhere underscore such apprehension and electoral relevance of media. New democracies in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe provide many examples of media manipulations during elections. The noted democracy expert Larry Diamond, for example, asserts that media have at times transformed the basis of individual voting. Pippa Norris, a Harvard professor, suggests that in countries with rich media environments media have been particularly important in elections for their agenda-setting role, persuasion, and mobilization effects.

In view of media's increasing public access, their immediacy, and potential to inform and educate the voters, or even mislead them, there was an imperative need to evaluate, assess or monitor media coverage, under the extraordinary circumstances in Nepal during the elections.
In deed, media monitoring has in recent decades become a critical component of election observation in many countries. The nationwide monitoring program in Nepal, undertaken by Press Council Nepal (PCN), at the behest of Election Commission (EC) of Nepal, and with support from UN and donor agencies, (March 9 to April 13, 2008) adopted twin approaches in analyzing media content.

Some one hundred media monitors systematically content analyzed prime time content of 23 major broadcasters (as well as 15 print publications). A qualitative analysis included an additional 43 radio stations and 59 newspapers from regions with high media clusters, and hotbeds of conflict in the southern plains.

The program’s overriding objective was to periodically update the EC on media's support in the electoral process, voters' education, and dissemination of accurate, fair and balanced coverage in compliance with the Election Code of Conduct for the mass media.

Restrained coverage
As seen in many past elections around the world and as feared by some analysts, media coverage focused on a few major political parties. The three major political parties-- Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) together earned three fourths of total time and space given to the 54 contesting parties. They also led others in direct attribution opportunities in all the monitored media.

The private media gave more quality time to NC and UML whereas CPN (Maoist) earned more quality time in government media, controlled by that party. Coverage was personality-driven and tended to focus on candidates with individual charisma, who could deliver gusty soundbites or quotes, conflict and drama. For example, the Maoist leader Prachanda led all other candidates in direct attributions.

Women and minority candidates rarely figured in coverage. The tone of coverage was positive for ethnicity-based political parties, rather negative for Tarai-based and pro-monarchy parties and largely neutral for others. Political bias was largely confined to opinion journalism. Weekly newspapers and broadcast opinion shows were partisan in their coverage, favoring a particular party or its candidates over others.

The tone of coverage was mostly neutral for all parties. Overall, the media appeared restrained in their coverage, and generally complied with the EC's code of conduct which urged them to refrain from bias and hate speech, maintain decency in language, support the electoral process, and to uphold professional obligations of journalists.

There were scattered cases of biased reporting in weekly newspapers, some private radio stations and opinion/analysis programs in government media. Hard news stories, for both the government and private outlets, were generally balanced and detached. Such programs in government media were overtly pro-CPN (M). Maoist candidates were frequently mentioned positively and Maoist sources dominated the coverage. Radio Ganatantra, based in Dang, for example, excluded news on parties other than CPN (M). Pro-party media often aired stories on speculation and ideological assertion. Some private broadcasters appeared shoddy in their programming. Kantipur TV’s “Bholiko Nepal,” a children’s show, for example, repeatedly aired a promo projecting Prachanda as “Tomorrow's Nepal.” Bhaktapur FM’s almost entire coverage time was devoted to a local party. There were several incidents of obstruction to the news process, and some cases of self-censorship of local journalists during election, forced by political parties, began to emerge in the post-election period.

The government media programs, their opinion journalism and comments tended to be favorable to Maoists. This was clearly evident in “Ghatana Ra Bichar,” a primetime commentary show on Radio Nepal. On March 23, at the height of the campaign, the Election Commission ordered the radio station to suspend its program for violating the code of conduct. In another example, the government-controlled NTV ("Jana Aawaj" show) aired appeals seeking votes for Maoists. Some private broadcasters outside Kathmandu conducted opinion poll, prohibited by EC during election time. At least one radio program used first person reporting and referred to a party as “our party.”

There were also isolated cases of violations which reflected language insensitivities and journalistic indecency. Op-ed pages of newspapers and opinion journalism in weeklies, broadcast commentaries and analysis as well as speech stories on political leaders with their direct or paraphrased attributions were often rhetorical and confusing to the public. Some media outlets tried to inform the public in terms of communal constructs, such as Pahade-Madhesi, or segregated Moslems or Yadavs, in their stories.

Some shows aired remarks calling for violence and retaliation. Defamatory remarks on individual candidates with sinister allusions, without naming them, and language laden with preconceived theories, such as conspiracies, foreign hands, big media, and sabotage etc. circulated as well. One radio Station from Janakpur was warned by EC for using communal and insensitive language.

The media appeared generally to be supportive of the election process. One excellent example of a private broadcaster’s helpful vigilance was the live coverage of some underage voters casting ballots at a polling station. Only a few publications or broadcast outlets were found to be disseminating news and views that appeared unhelpful to the election. Such stories typically called for a boycott of the election or raised doubts about the inevitability of elections.
It may be due to deadline reporting or news routines that in-depth coverage of issues was missing. Voters' education was limited to poll preparations and names of candidates and their manifestos. The issues of CA, credentials of candidates, their past experiences, background and skills, the contents and process of the new constitution did not receive much attention. The government media fared better than the private ones in these areas.

EC's PSAs on election also frequently appeared in the government media. But not all parties got equal space for the coverage of their manifestos. In addition, government broadcast media also provided free airtime to most of the political parties (but not all) to publicize their manifestos.
There was an effort on the part of media to be inclusive, in terms of raising issues about women, dalits, madhesis and other oppressed groups. But coverage was scanty and even missing for many ethic communities, identity groups (officially there are more than 100 such groups). Except for a few violations by radio stations in some regional towns, the media also widely complied with the tacit period provision in the code.

Finally, besides electoral support, the media had some professional obligations to fulfill. The EC's code prohibited journalists from seeking undue benefits from political parties and candidates. Except for one complaint that some local journalists were openly campaigning for a Tarai candidate, no reports of such cases came to light. The code also required media outlets to immediately publish correction or retraction of errors in news. But examples of corrections and retractions were scarce.

The monitoring was largely content-focused, and these findings are only partially reflective of the coverage trends. Professional obligations of journalists go beyond what is reflected in content, and it was hardly possible to know from the content whether the journalist got undue benefit from political parties and candidates. Some shortcomings aside-- the EC wrote 16 directives to media outlets found to be violating the code-- the media gave priority to CA election, candidates and their campaigns.

A fair assessment of media coverage of Nepal’s CA election must also take into account the context of the coverage during the historic polls. Notwithstanding their quantitative growth and dramatic outreach, a large segment of the Nepali media had little experience and wherewithal in election reporting. Suddenly, for the CA, they assumed a new and challenging responsibility, which required more than their past experience in covering general elections, the parliament, or conflict. Unable to set their own clear agendas for the fast-paced news coverage or to recruit trained, full-time reporters on election, many outlets focused on political events and speeches and thus became source-driven.

Extra-media structures, such as flawed legal provisions, fluid and uncertain political environment, economic and partisan interests, insecurity and continued intimidations against journalists also might have left some media without a clear direction. A generally restrained coverage could be indicative of a high degree of professionalism of the Nepali media, or it was simply a manifestation of self-censorship amid fears of more threats or attacks on the press. Fewer instances of rectifications may point to a lack of a culture of self-assessment and criticism by the media.

Fear of sanctions by EC or lack of an understanding of the code (it lacked wider publicity) also led some media to a conservative interpretation of the code. One editor, for example, was dismayed over his lost money on ads, because he declined advertisement believing, wrongly, that the code prohibited political ads during the campaign. Similar incidents may have had implications for news coverage. The code assumed media's loyalty to readers and their allegiance to a democratic morality. In practice, media loyalties are often divided (readers, owners, advertisers, political parties, etc.), and it is often media logic, based on drama, competition and profits, that gets the priority.

Lack of adequate follow up also frustrated some media outlets. The EC issued directives to correct matters that constituted violations of the code and the code left it to “the concerned media to observe the directives of the EC,” without any follow-up. Some journalists and media managers bemoaned that even their good works were not appreciated enough. For example, the Avenues TV’s live footage on underage voting from Birgunj was widely publicized and yet the polls at that center were not invalidated.

It is not uncommon for “the monitors of power” anywhere in the world to suspect their own monitors. Newsworkers’ staunchly independent orientation underlines their journalistic professionalism. Nepali media generally appeared supportive by way of their coverage of the program and its findings, and some recognized its deterrent effects on the nature of coverage.

It must also be emphasized in closing that elections, which are part of a larger democratic process, do not end on the polling day, nor does the need for a good reporting. A long-term approach is required. Nepali newsrooms need to nurture a culture of self-assessment and in-house monitoring, coupled with issue-focused training for journalists and a reliable support system.

And it is also important that in a true democracy, there are perhaps no better monitors than the public. Objective media criticism and media literacy should inform individual habits of media use.

Dharma Adhikari was the director of the Media Monitoring Program for Nepal’s Constituent Assembly Elections held in April 2008.