Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Reporter

How will journalists avoid offending sources and users while at the same time adhering to the highest standards of content and free expression? 

Dharma Adhikari
Actually, I am writing about the bad news, the distress of a reporter as a news gatherer, as a member of a news organization.

If you follow media news in the country, instances of bad news about news media appear to be on the rise. Issues of inaccuracy, fairness, bias, breach of privacy, and defamation have become more pronounced.

Trial by media over alleged sexual harassment by our Agriculture Minister forced him to resign. The Prime Minister bemoans media's negative representation of the constitutional deal. Some internationals label sections of our journalism as "hogwash". "Fictitious" media yarns pester Gagan Thapa.

The PM's office tries to pre-empt bad press, by inviting top editors for a widely publicized photo-op, to little or no avail. An aggrieved side, like Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat, throws a "ratri bhoj" for the press after suffering a media backlash over earthquake relief distribution.

In more sinister incidents, reports of attacks on journalists and death threats, on the ground of unfair or inaccurate coverage, have once again become frequent. Sometimes grievances are complicated, misplaced and even self-destructive, as in the baffling case of a government official from Dolakha who reportedly killed himself because a TV reporter, "sought information" from him.

Questions about content standards extend across media platforms, and news portals are seen synonymous with sensationalism, exaggeration, indecency, and smear.

In truth, such stories are largely superfluous allegations against media, without adequate substantiation. But it is also true that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find stories that do not border on impropriety, intrusion, or wrongful harm.

External pressure—in the form of news criticism, explosive condemnations, or outright physical assaults—is mounting on reporters or their outlets. The less told story of implosion, the internal pressure that has a bearing on the works of media professionals, including reporters, their managers or owners, is also surfacing with more frequency in recent times.

Take the reports of journalists forced to quit, or cry foul for various reasons, including editorial interference from the management, discrimination in the newsroom, unpaid salaries. Protests over the dismissal of journalists from Gorkhapatra and RSS, and the picketing of Himalayan TV and Avenues TV offices by working journalists were a striking form of implosion from within.

Journalists as well as their outlets are increasingly beset with bad news. Rarely, we come across a story in which both the inside and the outside forces are at work, in a double whammy. For instance, on July 27, journalist Sandeep Yogi was beaten up by the police for taking a picture of traffic congestion near the gate of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) office. He believes the road was unlawfully blocked by the vehicle of Lokman Singh Karki, the chief of the CIAA. A day later, Yogi was fired by his employers at Image News FM for precisely doing a reporter's job.

This bizarre case promises a textbook example of a journalistic peril.

The making of a Nepali journalist is often steeped in the idealism of social change, speaking up to power, and justice for the underprivileged, etc. Yogi's story is no different. But little would he realize that in practice, news and its gatherers are often subject to the rough and tumble of the marketplace as well as social and political loyalties of producers and managers.

The 25-year-old's rather fortuitous career path to journalism resonates with the experience of many young news-workers today. Coming from Bardia, he studied Hotel Management only to drop out of 12th grade to pursue a course in journalism. A chance incident led him to the study of news, especially its watchdog role, and some skills of the craft.

Meanwhile, he got married, lost a year in trying to go to Australia for further study, and then resumed his journalism education. It was then that he was offered a job at Image News FM. For over one and a half years, more than enough time to earn a permanent appointment, he was still working on a meager salary, and "without any appointment letter". On a retainer contract, he continued to cover a wide variety of shows on the radio.

What stand out for him, though, are the muckraking moments and human interest reporting such as the profile he recently wrote, for an online news site, on Kanchhi Magarni, a 70-year old homeless squatter on a mission to meet Gagan Thapa. This piece has so far been read by 136,015 people and shared 39,700 times.

Yogi punctuates his shifting expressions of helplessness with bouts of enthusiasm and confidence. "I have never been so upset and traumatized, but even as a young person I have been able to maintain my calm," he says. The lesson he has learned: Never report on your boss's friends.

Image Channel declined to broadcast the news about police harassment because the incident "had tarnished the image of the media house", the image of Image. It is unheard of that a Nepali media house would decide to kill a story on excesses committed against its own staff member.

Working journalists from Image rallied for Yogi's justice, but he felt abandoned by the larger journalistic community, including the FNJ and Nepal Press Union (NPU). Although the FNJ president Mahendra Bista, who is also the news chief at Image Channel, was instrumental in mediating with the police, Yogi found him less than forthcoming when it came to helping him get justice. And when the journalists' bodies sounded off, it was too late and too politicized: the FNJ accusing a section of working journalists at Image of resorting to smear Bista, and the NPU blaming FNJ of not taking a stand on behalf of Yogi.

Yogi was physically attacked last week by an unidentified group and says he is facing constant threats. Frustrated with the posturing of FNJ and NPU, on August 4, he filed an appeal at the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) seeking security and justice.

Bista is emphatic that the incident of Yogi's harassment and his dismissal from Image are wrongful acts. A FNJ committee is investigating the case. He points out that the issue has now been resolved, with Image announcing that Yogi has been reinstated. Yogi, however, has not returned to Image to resume work, he notes.

Unlike the solidarity seen in many other journalistic perils, this particular incident looks complicated. It does not come as a surprise that institutional loyalty, in the form of unionized ideology or investment interests, is too strong to be dampened.

Yogi's naiveté as a young reporter, his inconsistent demands, his lack of adequate training and skills in journalism, his exaggerated self-estimation and the propensity to get easily swayed by other people—as pointed out by people who know him closely—may also have contributed to his own making as an aggrieved reporter. Some observe that this particular case has been blown out of proportion and that young journalists should get deeply involved in their work and deepen their understanding of the profession rather than running after "cheap popularity and stunts".

Much of the burden of amends also lies with institutions. Continual training, guiding, mentoring of staff, coupled with monitoring, feedback, self-improvement opportunities, and clearly defined standards of conduct are crucial. Comply with the country's labor laws. Speed up administrative processes. Cut the official-speak.

The larger question is how will journalists avoid offending sources and users while at the same time adhering to the highest standards of content and free expression? Who will ensure to properly take into account the defenceless in the community, within newsrooms?

Competition and market forces have improved diversity, but they have had little effect on media behaviour, or the quality of news. The means of redress—both the self-regulation and the statutory regime of Press Council Nepal—seem largely ineffectual and limited today in their authority or reach.

The fact that a reporter, unsatisfied of the response from journalism's own (self) regulatory institutions, had to plead before the NHRC should be a cause for concern and an occasion for soul searching.

Published in Republica, 11 August, 2015