Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Between The Lines

Should a media house accept funds from foreign embassy? Is it ethical to accept foreign funds? Is direct foreign investment good for Nepal?

Lately, for those interested in media news, our newspapers and other channels are offering rare treats of personalized stories. By design or for mere market value of the hype, a while back, media persons like Vijay Kumar Pandey and Rabindra Mishra were dragged into Dil Shova Shrestha controversy. Then came CK Lal, igniting uproar over his reinterpretation of the origin of Nepali language. And now, we have Kanak Mani Dixit, another well-known media personality, serving as a vortex for our gotcha mentality.

We can read a pattern here. All these people are leaders in their fields, and they are criticized for their perceived misuse of professional influence via their stature in the media. It is normal in our democracy to scrutinize the lives of public figures, and even to bad-mouth them, especially political actors, but the way the focus has shifted to media persons in recent times appears unusual for the sector that has traditionally remained reluctant to discuss its own affairs. Perhaps it is the sign of coming of age of our media and their growing influence that these key messengers have to ultimately stand trial to public opinion.

And the media polarization on the latest episode reflects the public mood, between those who seem in a hurry to brand Dixit a dollarbadi, anti-peace activist doing the foreigners’ bidding and those who believe that the recent revelations about the funding received by Himal Southasia Trust from Royal Norwegian Embassy are nothing but an effort to single out and discredit a peace champion.

Association fallacy
The Dixit episode is diverting attention from the flaws of the Truth and Reconcialition Comission bill criticized by him and others to his foreign funds, cash books and offshore accounts. Dixit has confirmed that his non-profit Trust has received Rs 60 million from Royal Norwegian Embassy towards “enhanced critical debate and civil activism on regional issues on Nepal and South Asia.” The Maoists as well as some lawmakers from Nepali Congress have accused him of misusing the funds to campaign against the ongoing peace process.

A section of the political forces determined to overlook war-time crimes to save their own life are clearly unhappy with the relentless criticism of peace process by the self-styled “civil rights activist” and journalist who is calling for a sturdy TRC.

The episode has brought forth all kinds of questions relating to “foreign” monies or support in the media sector: Should a media house accept funds from foreign embassy? Is it ethical to accept foreign funds? Is direct foreign investment good for Nepal?

It is as if these questions are new and that answers are not apparent already. We are back in the 1990s when FDI in media became a raging topic, with most large publishers and media owners vehemently opposed to bideshi lagani in the “sensitive” media sector simply to protect their own businesses against foreign competition. In a globalizing world of free markets and pluralistic voices, nationalism and sensitivities were mere slogans.

The unresolved question is not if FDI or foreign support to media is acceptable, but to what extent and in what manner, which clearly requires more open debate and legislative measures. The latest case, more specifically, is about foreign grants and support to non-profit media initiatives. It may also include grants and fellowships to individual journalists. Such questions also apply to political parties, who have dubious funding records.

Sure, Dixit and other crusaders have some share of issues concerning their journalistic omissions or exaggerations. But public opinion in a democracy works in strange ways. Facts are often at the mercy of emotions. Association fallacies have their way. If you happened to interview a (future) controversial figure, you are controversial. If you challenge my conviction on nationalism, you must be an anti-nationalist. If you criticize a piece of legislation on Truth and Reconciliation, you most definitely are anti-peace.

Dixit appears to be guilty by association, despite or because of his anti-aid comments in the past. In him, the UCPN (Maoist) has found a grandiose space to bring the dollars and the dollarbadis together, giving a face, and an integral shape to the fallacy. You are with us or against us. The association logic is so powerful.

It does not matter if you single out an individual; it serves the purpose all the more by offering a face, an anchor to your misinformation or half-truths. It takes a giant to muster a crowd. And Himal Southasia is beyond comparison with the Telegraph weekly newspaper, which receives foreign funds just like several other development or academic-oriented Nepali periodicals or media products on broadcast outlets.

Foreign funding
Globally, media funding, in the name of “media development support” but often lumped with good governance programs, is increasing rather than decreasing. There is a growing consensus among scholars that foreign media support in fact helps promote press freedom, media rights and good governance. However, they have noted that funding in the media sector remains haphazard globally and it is yet to be institutionalized with clear strategies. The budding of non-profit news organizations in the digital age have created more need and room for such funding.

Lacking monitoring and research, the situation appears even more complex and chaotic in Nepal. As a “variable” field, media funding covers diverse cross-cutting issues like human rights, inclusion, conflict, and governance. Yet, anecdotal examples indicate foreign funds benefit a number of sectors, including journalists’ associations, radio stations or their programs, and non-profit media groups. And clearly, we don’t fund the Nepali editions of leading world media like the BBC, hugely popular in Nepal.

It’s too idealistic to decline foreign support altogether, especially when your own government or the private sector offers almost nothing in terms of financial support to the media sector or journalists. At the individual level, most of the prized journalism grants, fellowships and awards come from foreign countries or their embassies, and many Nepali journalists, most in the leadership role today, have professionally benefitted from them.

Even FDI is becoming more common in media. You only have to look across the southern border. India is fast shedding off its vehement protectionism and now discussing to raise the FDI threshold to 49 percent from 26 percent in the print media.

Accusations, counter-accusations and activism are good ways to heat up the oven. Now is the time to bake policies that integrate all aspects of funding in the media, including donor obligations, grants and direct investments, foreign or local as well as addressing the deeply entrenched issues of tax evasion and money laundering by media houses.

Media are only a part of the society; hence such laws should make transparency and accountability mandatory to all organs of the state, including political parties and leaders. The culture of shady give-and-take between media owners and politicians must come to an end. The government should also wake up to the reality that we urgently need media council or government/private sector foundations to support media initiatives and journalists’ works locally.

The work should start with a comprehensive study on media funding in Nepal. My own experience is that donors, unfortunately, are not interested in funding such a study! I have little doubt that for a serious debate on the issue and the future course of action in this area, Kanak Mani Dixit will soon come out with a cover on the topic in his Himal Southasian journal.

Published in Republica, 23 April, 2014