Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Light Over Heat

In trying to consolidate their bases and power, political parties along with their journalistic cohorts will be more polarized in coming years

Dharma Adhikari
It has been about one and a half days since I have lived in a democratic federal republic, formally. How does it feel? By the time the promised goodie was delivered, after so many willful deferrals, the little remaining anticipation had all but faded.

I did not experience any euphoria over the big transition Sunday evening; just a drained, 'all right' feeling. Stock in energy and detached in behavior, I tried to catch up with the news on the promulgation of the constitution.

And the news, irrespective of the message, form, or slant, is a different matter. It's hard not to get in the know. If not from a political viewpoint, then from a journalistic perspective, I watched the event live as it unfolded inside the BICC building: journalists on their first draft of history; indeed, this one was a real piece of history.

But was this about recording history or interpreting it? That was the hard question. As I skimmed through the channels, I was smitten by the reporters' looks; such a strong sense of the moment there. They are on a mission, itinerant and conversant, just like Narad himself, presiding over the mediation of a sense of the epochal reality.

But there also were others posing professional finesse, feigning detachment, or making show of versatility while at the same time interspersing these pretenses with their occasional interjections of wow, great, or amen! Some of them were actually congratulating viewers on the Big Day.

You must be irritated. How unfair that journalists, our fellow humans, should not partake of this joyous occasion, at least somewhat discreetly, even as they work in the field?

Was I happy? My generation wasted their lifetime in ceaseless strife and upheaval to arrive here. The three-man boundary conclave has given us seven states and much more. Was this the moment of relief, of joy, or an hour of ahoy? It may depend on how I respond to these—as a citizen, a human being, or merely as a Khas Arya hill man. By the way, I always thought our mountains are too high to be called hills. But then, mountain man sounds too brutish.

On a serious note, these are the times that try our conscience. But in this age of specialization and passive consumption, a Plato-like reasoned dialogue from his Republic looks impossible. We would rather hire professionals and experts to take up our burden of contemplating deeply and looking for truth and reason amidst an ocean of visceral emotions and fierce ideologies. And yet, we cannot rely on interlocutors, our journalists, any more to do that job objectively and effectively.

Conflict and drama are still journalism's first love. We get to consume far too much bad-bibad (protests and arguments) than sambad (dialogue) from their media products. Content alone is not enough; it is actually in abundance today and is not an end in itself. Sambad, particularly in today's interactive media environment, could serve a larger journalistic goal: of fairness to all, inclusion, mutual understanding, problem-solving, and above all strengthening a culture of democracy.

But the vicious news-cycle must continue. Coming after the devastating earthquake, the timing of the constitution, with the backdrop of protests and violence in Tarai, has satiated media's serial interest in drama. Except for a few, the mainline media outlets have avoided asking the hard questions about the genesis of the protests in the plains and the spike in violence. Coverage of agitators, their victims and families in the Kathmandu-centric press remained largely impersonal and sketchy. Rather than simply reporting and recording facts, journalists were placing events into different ideological narratives.

Of course, a few major outlets from Kathmandu consistently emphasized the need for restraint and dialogue to stop violence. Media pluralism means that alternative voices, however unpalatable, are not completely shut out in a democracy and in that, they offer their "journalistic moment" with their to-be-sure approach to reporting the unfolding violence. Some journalists, even as members of the unelected Fourth Estate, elected to pursue this story angle that elected politicians themselves failed to appreciate. The politicians, no doubt, were busy with their own "political moment", emphasizing the legitimacy of elected majority. The burden of storytelling was on journalists.

But some storytelling degenerated into something unprecedented in our media. The political tragicomedy served to release the worst of emotions and partisanship of commentators as well as reporters and editors. Their ideological biases are in full display, fueling communalism and religious intolerance. So much so that some commentaries by our well-placed editors and writers have been openly trashed in India for inviting intervention in Nepal. It's a rare case of an Indian journalistic criticism, in favor of Nepal.

Again, clash of opinions is good for democracy, so long as they are informed with facts and reason, and so long as they don't harm anyone physically, mentally or by other means. For a start, avoid presenting your views as views of inside sources: "understood to have said", "believed to have done", "it has been learnt that", etc. If we cannot have sambad right away, we may at least perfect a proper bibad to lay the groundwork for meaningful dialogue in the future.

Facts and figures are so cheap and accessible anywhere and to anyone that they don't mean much just because a journalist uses them profusely. They have to be packaged in a story, a narrative to engage the audience. Opinionated journalism, informed with facts and context, is becoming trendy in many countries these days with some experts announcing that actually the future of journalism is opinion-bound. That is an alarming scenario for someone who mistakes vitriol for opinion.

In terms of story pursuit, media should stop going gung-ho about any so-called major breakthrough and maintain a measure of skepticism. Every past enthusiasm on a perceived progress had soon to be bridled. Inform formulaic approach to balance such as sourcing or merely pull-quotes or pictures ("look, we do cover you") with humane stories and real empathy. Never judge audience trust and credibility with clicks online or comments. Even survey findings on media credibility, which have shown that the public trusts our media next only to the army and farmers, are hard to understand. Choose light over heat.

The worst is not over yet. The early period of the American Republic is known as the "dark ages of journalism" for a reason: partisan politics. In trying to consolidate their bases and power, political parties along with their journalistic cohorts will be even more polarized in the coming years in Nepal. That means more nasty and abusive media both at national and provincial levels. There is real danger that a significant chunk of our press will be more beholden to their political masters.

Politics has been at the core of Nepali journalism and it has always played an activist role to the point of claiming credit for successive democratic changes. An honest and thorough appraisal of the actual role played by the Nepali media in the process of political change is yet to be written. Political advocacy may rightly be its past glory. But we have now entered a different era that requires new imagination and craftsmanship. These are the times for a politics focused on public agenda rather than on ceaseless rhetoric.

Published in Republica, 22 September, 2015