Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Between the lines


For a regular subscriber, a newspaper is like an old friend who visits you every day with a new folio. You wait for your pal with the keenness of loyalty or adulation; and when it arrives at your door, you two get to relish yet another intimate conversation on a range of topics.

Having internalized its form and layout, you know where to look for current events, features, editorial content, cartoons; there goes the international stuff, and there’s the business section. Here’s the letters to the editor column, the business section, and these are advertisements, etc.

Your familiarity with the form at some point translates into confidence in the nature of content, and it may even extend to its overall journalistic orientation or approach. Thumbing through its parts, and depending on your preference, you smile or sneer at a byline, jostle with a headline, and swing with a cultline.

Your favorite newspaper, despite it being a mass-shared platform, and even in these days of borderless multi-media, is a private affair. It shapes you and molds you, but in the end, it is you who define its meaning and relevance to your life. It’s the reader who will decide how to browse it, what to make of the content, and upon reading it, whether to preserve it, discard it or find it useful to wrap your fried fish or dry foods like gundruk-sinki.

From the readers’ perspective today, the power of “reception” is such that once the newspaper is in your hands it is what you consider it to be; the receiver or the end user may even dismiss the motives of the owners, publishers, advertisers or the newsroom crew, and the field correspondents. But a distinction has to be made between the general indifference to ownership issues we sense among the majority of readers owing largely to the lack of media literacy and a discreet news readership adapt at their own meaning-making in reading newspapers, or consuming media content.

For discerning readers or audience, any abrupt change in the form of their favorite media platform is sure to concern them because it forces them to redefine their tastes or readjust their approach. It’s like seeing a friend with some unfamiliar disposition. And if the change is subtle or comes unannounced, and involves the professional or ideological orientation itself, it does not bode well for the type of cordial friendship mentioned in the opening paragraph.

Although the debate on media ownership in terms of foreign investment or monopoly is not new, recent events with political overtones have brought ownership issues in focus once again. Take, for example, the recent remarks by Ang Kaji Sherpa, the general secretary of Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN). His angry salvos against “bahun-chhetri” dominance in media and their ownership (as well as coverage)—plausible propositions in some regards—call for a careful and systematic assessment of the patterns and extent of representation, socially, culturally and politically.

Reports of another impending split in the Kantipur Publicatiions give us some kind of apprehension over its implications for our daily diet of news. Rumors have been making rounds that some political interests have recently backed the company that owns the paper you are reading right now. Citing this and other examples from our media, such as the ownership or control of many FM radio stations by political parties or leaders, some commentators have observed that the Nepali media have taken a “left turn”, marking a shift from the ownership that was traditionally liberal-leaning.

One may ask, if the change in ownership matters at all. I think it does. As much as in governance, transparency in media ownership structures is crucial for the sustenance of a democratic system. The public has the right to know about conflicting political or business interests of media owners, to know why certain political parties or certain brands of noodles or cosmetics are covered in their daily newspaper or broadcast channels more often than others.

Unfortunately in Nepal, private-ownership has been taken as synonymous with lack of government control, hence a condition of press freedom. We may wonder if the existing media arrangement, with innumerable channels and platforms, is serving diversity in content, and provides wider choices in quality programming, why bother about ownership patterns? Moreover, one may observe that in an extended transitional political environment like ours, the focus naturally should remain on free expression or the security of media professionals.

But the fact is these issues are too grave to be taken lightly. Just look at the post-Communist eastern European nations. The democratizing media there suddenly found itself in the grip of New Authoritarianism, in which a handful of media barons, allied with political forces for increased profits and favors, stifled press freedom, resulting in widespread self-censorship or repression of independent media. Many independent-minded journalists countered such tendencies by joining hands to start their own news outlets. Over the years, the eastern European nations have learnt that mixing business with politics is a dangerous precedence.

We certainly don’t want to see some voices muted and others inflated or exaggerated. Good journalism is about entertaining diverse voices, respecting balance, without fear or favor.

Soon, as the transitional period (hopefully) comes to a closure, focus in Nepal will shift to the owners of media outlets and their performance. Are all our media ventures legitimate businesses? The nature and sources of investment, concentration, and editorial policies will become widely open to issues of accountability. Of course, these will be seen first in legal parlance, but soon the debate has to move to media owners’ routine claims that they are here to serve the public. These are crucial issue especially in light of comments by professionals that editorial independence in newsrooms has seen continued erosion over the years.

With politicians’ entry into private media ventures, the potentials for both political and market censorship have grown further. Avid media audience should ask: What will happen to dissenting voices? Apart from the issues of monopoly, or overt commercialization issues, readers must now be alert about the conflict of interest of media owners. Sure, it may be impossible to do away with political biases or leanings, but partisan political biases should have no place in good journalism.

We know from experiences that traditionally, all around the world, media are not as forthcoming when it comes to communicating about their own profession. The least they could do is to update their readers on their key milestones that the entire industry is sure to talk about. And yet, when I meet colleagues in the media, they smile back and say it is often a third party, such as the media critics or watchdogs from whom they hear about the happenings inside their own news organizations.

That puts a heavy burden on (independent) media analysts. Data on media ownership issues and resources remain scarce. Serious questions could be asked about the analytical skills, methods and capacities of analysts who seem more interested in writing provocative, speculative pieces on the topic than deriving conclusions from available evidences.

Published in Republica, Aug 01, 2012.