Wednesday, April 24, 2013

“Free & Fair”


As we head towards the birth pangs of the second Constituent Assembly polls, hopefully due in November, Nepal’s news media are accorded with yet another opportunity to brave criticism, valid or not, and at the same time to demonstrate courage and professionalism in covering the historic elections.

Too often, election monitoring by observers, support by donors, or coverage of polls by the news media is characterized by a short attention span. It is only during the official campaign season lasting a few weeks that many of these actors enter the arena, trying to appear businesslike.

Already, the “free and fair” formula, trumpeting the seemingly impending polls, echoes across news channels. This phrase over the years has become so clichéd that it actually stirs up allergic reactions toward the very idea of freedom and fairness. Yet a keen reading of this principle is indispensable now that we are besieged by its sounds.

In their essay, “What makes elections free and fair?” (The Global Divergence of Democracies, 2001) Jergen Elklit & Palle Svensson explain that elections are free, if before polling day there is freedom of movement, speech, assembly, and association, freedom from fear, equal and universal suffrage, and if on polling day there is opportunity to participate in the election. Elections are also “free” if there are legal possibilities of complaint after the polling day.

Likewise, elections are “fair” if before polling day there is a transparent electoral process, an election act and an electoral system that grant no special privilege to any political parties or social group; presence of an inclusive electoral register; an independent, impartial election commission; impartial treatment of candidates by police, the army, and the courts of law; equal opportunities for political parties and independent candidates to contest elections; impartial voter education programs; an orderly election campaign (observance of a code of conduct); equal access to publicly controlled media; and no misuse of government facilities for campaign purposes.

Elections are “fair” if on polling day there is access to all polling stations for representatives of the political parties, accredited observers, and the media; secrecy of the ballot; absence of intimidation of voters; effective and proper design of ballot papers; impartial assistance to voters; proper counting procedures and measures for transporting election materials; and impartial protection of polling stations.

Also, elections are “fair” if after polling day, there is official and expeditious announcement of election results, impartial treatment of any election complaints, impartial reports on the elections results by the media, and acceptance of the election results by everyone involved.

Measured against these yardsticks, we can clearly see that our pre-election conditions in some respects are not that impressive. Security is a key issue. Some fringe political parties have declared they will boycott the polls. They have obstructed voter registration and vandalized some electoral offices. There is also the fear that many voters might be left out while others might be double-registered illegally.

Fairness is also somewhat in doubt. Questions regarding the electoral process persist, and there is a fear that major parties are trying to secure some special privileges. Approval of poll ordinance remains pending because of disagreements among political parties over a proposed eligibility threshold for proportional seats and the criteria banning candidates with criminal background from contesting the polls. Many voters in remote areas are beyond the reach of officials or mass media, making impartiality in voters’ education difficult.

A horse-race voting cannot help determine the real quality of a representative system. In a true democracy the tenacity of public spirit helps sustain their democratic ambitions. A self-governing people not merely vote for a candidate in a periodic election, but also show their preferences on a continual basis. And to make any such well-informed decisions in today’s increasingly mediated environment, they rely largely on the media. The media also often turn into battlegrounds for political spin or manipulation by candidates or political parties.

Thus during the election process, there is the need for an independent and impartial media monitoring mechanism that keeps a tab on the practice of “free & fair”, and an accurate reporting of the polls. More important, quality of coverage is measured in terms of media’s willingness and ability to serve as “voters’ voice” rather than in terms of their traditional obsession with political speeches.

It is noteworthy here that the CA election of 2008 was subjected to a comprehensive 45-day media monitoring program undertaken by Press Council Nepal (PCN) and supported by the international community. As the director of that program I had the opportunity to oversee the monitoring process and to analyze media coverage of the polls.

Campaign 2008, a public report on that program, is a compilation of massive data. Although some sections of the media appeared partisan and violated the election code of conduct, coverage was generally restrained and supportive of the election process. Incidents of political obstruction of the news process and cases of self-censorship were reported sporadically. Coverage on inclusion issue was scanty and news reports were largely focused on political sound bites.

Starting with the pre-campaign period offers a natural orientation. Skim-reading stories with election-related headlines in two of the nation’s leading Nepali language newspapers between March 15 and April 15 confirms earlier trends: the coverage is largely speech-focused, process-oriented and conflict-centered.

Half of the 114,000-word cumulative content came from Kantipur. It carried 96 news stories, and 21 opinion pieces, editorials or interviews, etc. on elections. Likewise, Nagarik had 89 news stories, and 20 opinion-related materials. A majority of stories are built solely on utterances by Khil Raj Regmi, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and fringe party leaders protesting the elections. Other articles refer to uncertainty about the election date, poll ordinance issues, obstruction of voters’ registration, etc. Lacking unified and consistent voices on election plans, the overall effect is disorienting.

One bright spot is a creative approach to voters-voice reporting in both newspapers. During this period, Kantipur carried at least five news reports (Janamat, meaning “public opinion”) with quotes from civil society members from around the country. The blurb from Durlabh Singh Jhukal of Dadeldhura sums up the predominant local sentiment: Politics should have been taken care of by politicians themselves. However, we must do our part to make the elections a success.

Similarly, Nagarik carried several short reaction stories giving voice to the rural public, including a conflict victim from Tanahu, an elderly man from Chitwan, farmers from Sindhupalchowk, and a Kusunda community from Dang. Singha Ram Chepang of Lothar VDC, Chitwan walked to the voters’ registration outpost hoping to claim an old-age allowance for himself. The rural voters see the election as a way to better their livelihood than anything else. For example, people from Ramite Khola VDC, Morang are deliberating on ways to make “development” their agenda for the upcoming elections.

Of course, a voter’s approach to media in election can be costly, time-consuming and arduous. But it is the right thing to do in a representative system, and it is also enterprising, innovative, and rewarding in the long run.

Media monitoring requires appropriate infrastructure. There could be more investment in better technologies, but we need a long-term perspective. Technology evolves fast, and the hardware donated to PCN in 2008 worth millions of rupees is already primitive and useless. Monitoring technologies that support natural language processing, speech recognition, machine generated translation, multimedia indexing, and retrieval should be acquired in this age of big data research.

Nepali media may be free and fervent today, but they are far from being sufficient professionally, or fair. Before they are assessed for their works, they need support, in the form of outreach, refreshers and training in election reporting, and enterprise story projects focused on public opinion themes.

Above all, monitors themselves need monitoring. Some are multi-million dollar networked leviathans led by well-placed INGOs while most others are small initiatives. Often, these remain guarded and their output is rarely made public or shared with voters. The Election Commission as well as other major actors and donors with shared interest in the electoral process should devise a coordinated, integrative mechanism in terms of poll conditions, procedures and media content.

Published in Republica, April 24, 2013


Post a Comment