Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Rituals & Other Stories

Nepali media in 2013

In this column, I attempt to look at some of the notable media stories of 2013. For the purpose, I went through nearly 400 stories from the internet-based English-language news sources.

The pattern of meta-coverage—coverage on media topics by media themselves—is a mark of maturing press. The way reporters frame their stories is fairly indicative of the type of coverage across platforms. More than 70 percent of stories were puff pieces.

Ritual news 
These comprised a flood of pseudo-events. Awards were frequently reported projecting the impression that Nepal is a land of many award-winning journalists!

Stories on visits by media people to foreign countries showcased professional pride. Trainings, fellowships, interactions, seminars, workshops, expos, and sponsored festivals offered bulk of the news fodder. Omnipresent were “participated”, “elected”, “feted”, and “honored”. And sometimes, sadly, “bereaved”.

Inaugurals, launches and releases of media products and anniversaries of news organizations were aplenty. Many stories on the CA elections also focused on ritual activities, such as press conferences and directives by the Election Commission.

The most hyped in this frame were updates on Rabi Lamichhane’s marathon talk show of Guinness World Record fame.

Accelerating technology
These included upbeat quarterly industry reports on the ever-increasing internet penetration rates, over 27 percent by year-end. They pitted the two telecom giants—NTC and Ncell—against each another. Increased competition led to continued tariff cuts, network expansion, next generation coverage, and a download speed faster than India’s.

Mobile use had become ubiquitous (over 70 percent) and interest shifted to social media, most visible in its use by candidates and journalists during the election season. Stories on software companies, or radio and television, in spite of their continued expansion and, in some cases, even bankruptcies or shutdowns, were few.

Often highlighted were profit or loss figures, such as over Rs 35 billion collected in taxes from telecom companies, or the money lost to international carriers in bandwidth fees (Rs 3.7 billion in 2011-12). As internet on the move was increasingly available, Nepali ISPs lost 60 percent market share in the last five years. Although VoIP scam, dubious ad campaigns, etc. were sometimes highlighted, mainstream outlets appeared reluctant to cover cases of corruption, bribery or tax evasion in the corporate sector.

Stories cited that growing attraction of companies to advertising on Facebook, and the introduction of the “one-window ad policy” and ceiling on academic ad spending introduced by the government in early 2013 had worsened revenue prospects in the Rs 4.32 billion ad industry that has been stagnant since 2011.

The merger of Rajdhani daily and Nepal FM, and the buyout of Annapurna Post by 3NI Pvt Ltd were new strategic trends in news business sector, but were hardly covered by competing mainstream outlets. Professional developments, including innovations and annual turnovers of competitors, remained major taboos.

Safety, security, control
The year saw a marked improvement in journalists’ security with some media watch groups reporting as much as 60 percent decrease in incidents of press freedom violations compared to 2012.

Of the three dozen instances of media workers killed with impunity since the insurgency era, a few cases promised a glimmer of hope for justice. Some culprits who admitted burying journalist Dekendra Thapa alive in 2004 were arrested in January only to be released due to political interference. Later in the year, killers of two other journalists, Uma Singh and Yadav Poudel, were brought to justice, a major accomplishment since the May 2011 sentencing of murderers of journalist Birendra Sah.

Stories reported increased hostility between the court and media. Only few print journalists were allowed inside the apex court and online or electronic media were barred altogether. Stories reported aberrant controls by the judiciary. Some online journalists were arrested under an extraneous clause on public morality and decency in the Electronic Transaction Act 2008. Stories also highlighted expulsion of a Kantipur journalist from the Supreme Court on the grounds that he was dressed improperly, and the contempt of court case filed against Bijay Kumar Pandey for his criticism of the judiciary.

Other stories concerned assaults and threats on journalists, extortion of media, cyber security breaches, and safety of women journalists at workplace. During the election season, reports on media manipulation or complaints about propaganda were frequent. Typically, attacks on the press were the only topics that generated mutual coverage in competing media in a gesture of professional solidarity.

Policy and reform issues 
Policy issues were covered intermittently. Some stories followed up on the review of Media Policy 2012 that was criticized for its many flaws, including its inadequate attention to issues of transparency and exclusion of online media. Competing interests had led to disjointed efforts in shaping the policy. Some news reports confused it with other media policies under work. Stories also featured recommendations by the High-level Commission on Making the Media Inclusive in May to improve newsroom diversity as well as coverage on minorities.

The growing recognition of online media shimmered in the burst of energy displayed in formulating policies. In May and December, the Ministry of Information and Communications (MoI) formed two separate committees to study options in registration and regulation of online media, and to suggest ways to make them accountable. In August, online news professionals themselves formed two committees to write a code of conduct and to study existing problems and legal options. It was not clear if these varied efforts were coordinated for a common goal.

Other stories reported internal policy disagreements within the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), and even protests regarding alleged corruption and lack of inclusion. Hurdles in enforcing the policy on minimum wage for journalists as well as difficulties in implementing RTI were also covered sporadically. Calls for reform also echoed in exhortations by pundits for media accountability, content quality and democratic norms. The year ended with stories featuring the release of UNESCO’s Assessment of Media Development in Nepal, a long-awaited document that diagnoses media development indicators for the country.

Int’l dimensions
The foreign frame, involving China more often than India, was prominent in 2013.

China, driven by its great power aspirations, has extended its media reach across continents. The launch of the Kathmandu edition of China Daily in association with Nepali Times in October was an interesting development with implications for Nepal’s own notions of press freedom and perceptions of transnational media. The same month, citing a study by the Washington-based Center for International Media Assistance, some Nepali outlets reported that China was watching Nepali media closely in an effort to increase favorable coverage. China’s growing desire to assert itself also reflected in its offer to help us establish “a mechanism for communication sector”.

As usual, India figured in stories on Bollywood, snowballing this year in the controversial “Buddha” TV serial, and in references to Indian leaders’ media pronouncements on Nepal’s political process. Some stories had our own Army Chief Gaurav Shumsher Rana as a ‘mischief-maker’. A Times of India story in October quoted Rana as saying that India was capable enough to strongly respond to any Chinese military advances. Rana, however, dismissed the attribution as bogus.

Perhaps the most hyped stories of international dimensions were the illegal live video call from atop Mt Everest in May by a UK climber, and later, the uproar over Fox News ambush on Sudarsan Subedi, and reactions on The Guardian’s coverage on Nepali migrant workers’ deaths in Qatar.

A deeper look 
The overall coverage was diverse and market-driven, but seldom focused on substantive professional issues like self-improvement, mediaeconomics or innovations and creativity in media. The digital shift was becoming visible; however, newspapers were far from believing they were folding up soon.

Further acceleration of new technologies will require a focus on efficient and systematic ways to monitor and manage media practices. As media industry grows in size and influence, issues of transparency and accountability will become more prominent leading to coverage of the habits and needs of media investors, workers and users. Moreover, in a country charting a new political path, it falls on the media to also debate media standards and alternatives applicable at both federal and state levels.

Published in Republica, 15 January, 2014