Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Resolution next

Dharma Adhikari
Now that the year 2011 is past and the New Year is upon us, column inches and air-time of our media seem inundated with “how to” specials on keeping resolutions, and never breaking them. It’s the same old story of unkept promises that I hear from others too: Now I will quit khaini-churot, I will work to save our environment, I will be a good listener, I will lose weight, I will be a kind, helpful, thankful person, etc.

Every new year and then in course of the languidly fading year, our leaders resolve to make good on familiar promises: We will keep this country and our people united, we will work in consensus, we will resolve all our problems. Another wasted year, another occasion to make idle resolutions.

A master-resolution so far: We will deliver the constitution; this time we are serious, we swear. Let’s hope the Supreme Court will take it seriously.

But we know the point about the constitution is far too serious an issue to be taken lightly. It is no doubt the single most important task before us. Beyond the ritual of resolutions, let’s ask what things our politicians, legal experts, scholars and other professionals do in anticipation of the new year could contribute to a smooth constitution writing process?

This question goes out to media professionals too. Did we resolve last new year to keep a tab on the constitutional process and kept the promise too? How can we be more assertive in our roles regarding this process? If we are committing ourselves to a new year plan to focus on this issue, how are we going to stick to it this time around?

These are difficult questions and there are no clear answers. Prone to instincts, anecdotes and reactive impulses rather than empirical data, we may feel we have, by and large, kept such resolutions. After all, we can say, it has been the number one new agenda during our transition for quite some years now.

Indeed, we may argue, as a partner in the historic change process, a large segment of the Nepali media has focused intently on the constitutional process since November 2008, when the Constituent Assembly decided to prepare the country’s new democratic constitution and unveil it by May 28, 2010. Seven months after the historic CA elections of April 2008, the attention of key actors (the CA, government, civil society groups, members of the international community, media, etc) shifted to constitution-making. To begin the task, the CA also formulated a constitution committee as well as subject and procedural committees.

Media’s role in constitution drafting should be seen in light of the potential of the diverse media to influence policy choices and shape public perception.

The media were called upon by these committees, other agencies and civil society groups to contribute to the constitution-making process (CMP). The Prime Minister of the time asked journalists to “play a constructive role” by covering the CMP in a way to make it participatory. The Center for Constitutional Dialogue (CCD), an independent agency supported by international donors, initiated media outreach programs to ensure focus on the substantive aspects of the CMP and to offer informed choices for public debate on the issue.

The government also launched public outreach programs through television and radio. Community mobilization activities focused on increasing public knowledge of the constitutional process and issues and public input into constitution making. Many civil society groups sponsored media programs on the topic. All these efforts underscore the role of media in educating the public about the process and stimulating public debate. Yet, lacking a system to monitor, assess and evaluate the nature and scope of their involvement, we know little about the quality and breadth of their input.

It is true that time and again, in their pronouncements and comments, journalists and media institutions have emphasized public participation, professional ethics, a culture of consensus and unhindered reporting conditions. Sometimes, because of their overemphasis on special provisions on press freedom and right to information, they seemed more self-serving than public-centered. Ensuring constitutional guarantees on press freedom is critical to a democratic order, but the media also have a civic role in facilitating a broad public debate and participation in other vital issues of constitution-building.

As the constitutional process moves ahead, there is an imperative need to boost public education and participation. However, without a system to measure and analyze media content on the CMP, it is impossible to assess the quality, diversity and tone of coverage on constitutional issues.

It is important to view the need for media spotlight on the CMP in light of the potential of the country’s increasingly diverse media to influence policy choices and more importantly shape public perceptions. Despite their many flaws in reporting a chaotic transition, the media have been a key player, from the decade-long civil war to the massive people’s movement of spring 2006 to the Madhesh uprising of 2007 to the 2008 CA polls.

Unfortunately, there is no agency in Nepal to systematically track the coverage on the CMP and to assess media’s role in that process. Because the CMP involves a noteworthy shift to “a process reporting” from the conventional event-reporting, it adds extra burden on journalists and media outlets already wanting in resources and know-how for specialized coverage.

Past monitoring efforts have exclusively focused on media freedom issues. A notable exception was the systematic nationwide monitoring of media coverage of CA polls. The program was conducted by Press Council Nepal, with support from Election Commission and donors. The study report noted that since media influence in the democratic process was growing and transitional times were not yet over, continuous and independent monitoring was an imperative, especially until the next elections. The report also urged donors to change their short-attention span on democratic events/processes like elections and to prioritize media monitoring in their funding.

A systematic media monitoring of CMP and the peace process will help provide policy makers and stakeholders with a basis for understanding the emphases and tone in media coverage as well as for weighing public outreach and impact. It will also help sensitize media toward prioritizing their news agenda with informed and deliberative coverage of the issues of constitution making. Such media monitoring will also help document media role in the historic process for future reference.

While policymakers and independent watchdogs must devise ways to track coverage on the CMP, and follow through, journalists and media outlets need to be more assertive on substantive issues. In terms of process, focus now must shift from preparatory and (soon) drafting phase to public consultation, to final review and adoption phase. For example, the public feedback provision immediately following the draft constitution begs for gigantic efforts of the media in public education. This is a crucial matter especially in the wake light of the criticism that the media did not shine enough spotlight on the nuances and significance of first phase of the rather poorly implemented public feedback efforts in early 2009.

Issue-wise, we can only speculate on the nature and scope of media focus on the following key constitutional agenda: fundamental rights, rights of minorities and marginalized communities, state restructuring and power sharing, legislative body, form of governance, judiciary, structure of constitutional bodies, national resources, economic rights and sharing of revenues, cultural and social solidarity, and, finally, protecting national interests. Only a balanced approach can ensure that coverage of one issue does not overshadow another issue.

Similarly, another area that needs sustained media focus are the key actors, including CA members, the cabinet, political parties, civil society, constitutional groups, international community, minority groups, women, marginalized, dalit, madhesi, janajati communities, and the public.

Finally, the (negative, neutral, or positive) tone of media in describing the CMP has a bearing on its public understanding. Unfortunately, when it comes to framing topics, media focus often weigh heavily on controversies, particularly relating to actors, with little substance on the processes and issues.

As we begin the new (Gregorian) year and as we come closer to the CA schedule for the draft constitution (February end), this is an issue worth a professional resolution: now we will, perhaps for the last time, devote a few more quality column inches and air-minutes on this all-important topic.

Published in Republica, 4 January 2012