Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Media Complex

Nepali press remains geographically constricted, politically susceptible, economically frail, intellectually deficient and ethically ambivalent. 

The historical circumstance of total political control of the press motivated journalism historian Grishma Bahadur Devkota to write his ‘classic’ History of Nepal’s Printing Press and Newspapers (1968), which hints at the significance of press freedom. But his expressed objective in the preface of the book remains largely unfulfilled. “Today, one can see Nepali society lacking in so many things,” he wrote, “there is no relief from the works that are to be accomplished.”

The democratic process that started in the1990s opened the door, finally, for the removal of many of those deficiencies. In journalism, there has been a surge in focus on institutions, policies and content. While these are required as we grow, I wonder if we also need to identify the antecedents and core values of the profession for our growth to be meaningfully aligned with our natural and cultural circumstances.

Sure, one should be wary of one-liners. But the fact is, academically, Nepali journalism has been hijacked by political communication experts. Professionally, it has always remained a domineering show of adversarialism.

In truth, the nation’s press is characterized not only by power politics but also by many other complexities. These complexities could be better explained through Nepal’s long-suppressed (or expressed) social, political, economic, intellectual and moral experiences that shape each other as well as the press and vice versa. These I call the five complexities.

In all this, geography plays no small a part in a land-locked country. The all-enveloping mountains, despite their many blessings, have hindered infrastructure, inhibiting outreach of the fruits of journalism. Some community media efforts have helped compensate for mainstream media’s inability in reaching out to the rural communities. But these small newspapers and radio stations are far from adequate for the sparsely scattered populations.

Although today national consolidation under a federal system is a major issue, politically, Nepal is a very old country. While our neighbors, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri-Lanka, attained nationhood in their present form only during mid-twentieth century, the Nepali state was established in the mid-eighteenth. Yet, successive governments excluded the masses in the polity of the nation, one glaring example being their reluctance to induct and nurture the country’s own popular press system, even while a free press continued to thrive across the Southern border, introduced by the colonizing British. The esoteric political culture was mirrored in the press laws and regulations that came into being in the past century—reflecting the reluctance of those in power to facilitate press freedom.

The political changes of the past few decades ushered in a new era of liberalism, sometimes punctuated by repression. Under this climate, the private media saw dramatic rise and growth. The difficult reporting conditions and the resultant self-censorship during the Maoist war tested the limits of our media’s professionalism and their maturity, symbolizing their coming of age.

However, reminiscent of the polity of the country, our media are far from mature. Despite the claims of professionalism from journalists and media houses, political partisanship continues to be the single biggest ideology that largely defines Nepali press. But bitter adversarialism alone won’t help. Journalists and political quarters should be able to work together to ameliorate areas of policies and systemic change, the core issues of contemporary Nepal.

Socially, Nepal is an amalgamation of religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity—long subdued, but resurrected in the past decade of democratic awakening. Today, the ideas of secularism, pluralism, equality, and social justice are making headway. The Nepali press, as a vital component of the civil society, has not been indifferent to these important issues. Although historically the press has hardly been a part of what German Sociologist Jurgen Habermas calls the “public sphere,” it has in recent years begun to serve diversity.

However, media’s elitist/urban bias and partisanship hardly provides an opportunity for a fair and fuller representation of the cross-sections of the society. The fragile but extant regional language press in Newari, Maithili, Bhojpuri, and Hindi reflects some diversification, but many languages such as Avadi, Tamang, Tharu, Rai, Gurung and Tibetan do not have their own press system.

Thus Nepali journalism should aim to build bridges in a country (increasingly) divided along the lines of caste, gender, ethnicity, languages, beliefs, wealth and power. The extent to which the media have helped in these issues remains largely unknown.

Economically, we remain frail. While few publishing houses have earned revenues, economic health of journalists and professionals working with the mainstream Nepali media remains poor. Most of them serve a press system that is only recently emerging as a free institution, but are far from being independent and fair. The nation’s press has largely been a family affair. The sheer number of publications in the past decade may have resulted from the democratic change and a guarantee of press freedom, but they also reflect a sort of sustenance journalism, sowing your own seed to meet your personal wants.

Few newspapers have established themselves as viable institutions. Except for a few, most of the media are miniscule in the production, distribution, and reception dimensions of media economy. Few have managed to tap, or even explore the markets in rural parts of the country as well as the huge Nepali diaspora of over seven million in India, Bhutan and Tibet. Instead, Nepal continues to be inundated by Indian and American media and their content.

But globalization is not a unidirectional phenomenon. Indeed, ideas and products from poor economies travel across the international borders, and sometimes help check the excesses of globalization. The community media efforts in Nepal have done just this. The internet could be another area of exploration.

Intellectually, the Western liberal contents appear hip. In theory, a myriad of competing Hindu philosophies, tinged with Buddhist thoughts, have existed among learned class, for ages. Until 1950, education and learning was an exclusive property of the ruling class. A stem of Hindu ideology, emphasizing Sanskrit classics, renunciation, self-negation, conformity and commitment, became more salient. At best, Nepal’s intellectual tradition was a mixture of Hinduism and Buddhism, focusing on the life after rather than the here and now.

Even the country’s poet laureate Laxmi Prasad Devkota preached abstinence and austerity, and called his countrymen to live on greens and nettles rather than on wealth and comfort. Bal Krishna Sama, a rationalist, pleaded for more suffering provided that God came to live in his home. Although, over the decades, Nepali literature and the arts have produced rich diversity of thoughts, their foundations were essentially self-effacing, though often metaphorical and critical of the repressive political system of the time.

Today, Nepali journalism, increasingly influenced by Western liberal rationalism, is haunted by the ghosts of self-taught romantic poets and writers. Journalism continues to be a symbolic art, rather than a realist profession. While the West suffers from excessive rationalism and scientism, Nepal, like its South Asian brethrens, suffers from excessive emotionalism. The soul still prevails over the mind. It is only in the last few decades that some progress has been made in the education and training of journalists towards greater professionalization.

Today, we need serious deliberation on what constitutes Nepali journalism and how it can be defined. The mainstream model is based on Anglo-American liberal paradigm. But some question the relevance of the dominant Western tradition.

This brings me to the moral dimensions of our press. What should be its roles, values, priorities? How best can it serve, if at all, the public and the fragile democracy without jeopardizing its commercial imperatives?

There is a glaring gap between journalistic principles and practice. The Anglo-American liberal ideals, though held in high esteem, are vaguely understood or articulated, and little is known about how the purported liberal values relate to the traditional values of conformity, compliance and commitment, the vestiges of centuries of authoritarian rule.

From Hindu-Buddhist perspective, the ideals of righteousness, reverence to individuality, non-violence, independent search for truth, etc. suggest that professional qualities constitute not only writing skills but also personal qualities of journalists.

Journalists in the controlled press system did not have to deal much with issues of press roles, ethics and professionalism. Today, Nepali journalists wrestle with what it means to be good journalists in an era of unprecedented freedom.

Apart from partisanship, commercialization, lack of professionalism and ethical lapses have resulted in a serious crisis of credibility in journalism. Cases of libel, plagiarism, deception, and fabrication are rife. Professional associations or organizations do exist, and they do have codes of conduct, but they are either ineffectual or unbinding. The question is: who will watch the watchdogs?

Thus, Nepali press remains geographically constricted, politically susceptible, economically frail, intellectually deficient, and ethically ambivalent. Journalistic excellence is contingent upon improvement in these areas.

Published in Republica, Jan 18, 2012