Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Let ‘em Know

Data on media ownership and transparency is limited, largely because of insufficient laws to make media organizations disclose information

"This, above all: to thine own self be true."
– William Shakespeare

Dharma Adhikari
The @jhyal (Nepali Journalists) twitter handle recently tagged me: What can be done to make media investments transparent? Is it all right to require media owners and editors to report their private properties to the government?

The basis for these questions, as apparent in another Tweet from the same handle, was the assertion that nobody has admitted to making profits in the media sector and yet no investor seems ready to close shop. Of course, nobody is an overstatement; some leading publishers have publicly acknowledged profits. And instances of media houses folding up are also not that rare.

Traditionally, debates on journalism have often focused on the profession, on journalists and their works, their follies and grievances, their trials and tribulations. That was natural during the formative era, for the baby steps. As the news industry grows in number and influence, focus has gradually shifted to the owners, their organizations and products, their agenda and influence.

Established centers of power, influence and wealth, be it in politics or religion, are now prone to challenges. The media barons are no exception. Emerging socio-economic, cultural and technological forces are shaping our perceptions about an increasingly mediated world in new and profound ways.

Technological disruptions, marketization of news and opinion, erosion of editorial independence, blurring of the line between journalism and advertisement (or propaganda), the culture of self-censorship, hidden or opaque investments, conflicts of interest, tax evasions, to name a few, prompt hard questions in public interest.

Regarding the opening questions, some tweeples suggested enforcing strict tax compliance, requiring media organizations to indentify sources of their income, and maintaining transparent records of incomes and expenditures of media owners. It is impossible to ascertain the nature of ownership and credibility without first ensuring transparency. Openness is essential for accurate data collection and sound analyses.

Transparency is about substantive openness, credibility and accountability in public interest. Unfortunately, data on media ownership or transparency in Nepal is limited, largely because of insufficient laws and regulations to compel media organizations to disclose relevant information to regulatory bodies, such as the Company Registrar's Office, Press Council Nepal or the Ministry of Information and Communication. Even the limited data collected by these bodies or available in public domain remains scattered and inconsistent. There is little authentic information. For instance, how do you account for the anomalies in registration of media organizations or reports of money laundering in the media?

Work in this area must start with a thorough review of existing ownership patterns and transparency measures, including legal provisions. Policies and regulations must not only address issues of diversity, pluralism, and concentration as is the case internationally, but also foreign direct investment, financial disclosure requirements, registration, licensing, taxation, etc. The public must be able to access timely, accurate and credible data easily and free of cost. Besides, company laws should require uniform and standardized reporting.

As far as individuals are concerned, you cannot force private citizens to disclose their wealth. Journalists and editors may sometimes boast of their "public figure" status, but that is not necessarily the case when it comes to laying bare their riches. Studies have shown that legal frameworks in most countries are inadequate to ensure transparency of media ownership and most regulators do not require disclosure of ownership data. Though importance of transparency in the media is being increasingly emphasized, there is no clear standard approach in reporting the data.

In any case, the media champion transparency and accountability in public life. They demand transparency from other institutions or individuals in society. Ironically, they are generally not enthusiastic about embracing this virtue or about making self-disclosures.


In a democratic media system with the constitutional guarantee of press freedom, self-regulation, the internalizing of responsibility, is preferable to external regulation and control. It is an ideal way to nurture professional growth and sustain integrity as well as meet regulatory requirements.

It will take a while to enact or amend the laws and regulations. Meanwhile, the self-governing media outlets could consider initiating or revisiting their disclosure measures. With most media outlets operating online, they don't have space constraints for full disclosure to their users and customers.

But my recent analysis of a sample of websites of major national print outlets, radio and television stations, and online news portals (33 in total) shows that less than one-fourth of the websites offered sufficient details about themselves. The study had analyzed the pages for disclosure information, their navigability and ease of feedback.

Information: Only a few outlets had their individual home page title as well as website slogans on the web index, making it difficult for users to quickly identity the site and decide about visiting the home page. Ownership was often indicated in terms of organization name; and even private companies rarely introduced their ultimate individual owner or shareholders.

None of the website listed its revenues, or conflicts of interest, such as the interest of owner(s) in other (media) organizations or businesses. "Integrated media" replaced "media concentration" in some sites. Happy, anti-monopolists?

Interestingly, several websites had detailed advertisement tariffs, sometimes on their "about page".

Nearly one-third websites specified their professional or organizational mission. Most started with a self-adulatory background, sometimes highlighting the outlet's "historic" contribution to the democratic movement, in one way or another, followed by objectives often emphasizing the watch-dog role ("hard-hitting", "bold"). Recurrent terms or their variants to watch: responsible journalism; quality, innovation and integrity; pursuit of truth; right to information; facts; accuracy, balance and credibility; breaking news, etc.

A telling feature was that unlike English-language outlets, Nepali-language publications were often stingy in their disclosure details but generous in their ad information. Only a handful of outlets, regarded as leaders in the industry, carried "terms of use" or "privacy information". Most often, they were the ones who disclosed the most.

Access: In many Nepali websites, distracting colors of "about" or "contact" tabs at the bottom annoys you. The recent switch to responsive designs, however, made access easier in other publications. Only a couple of websites used the visual power of multimedia to communicate about their organizations.

Feedback: Almost all the websites offered contact address (phone and email) and a few offered the option of fillable contact forms. Best known publications were more likely to list key staff members and their contact addresses. How about soliciting readers' suggestions or complaints, posting a customer commitment statement? Rarely.

Clearly, our media outlets appear averse to self-disclosure, more specifically to stating their sources of revenues, conflict of interest and privacy statements. They maintain their desired level of transparency, which is limited. We have to divine what is missing somewhere amidst businesspeak, obfuscation and euphemisms.

There is room for greater transparency and the onus lies with media owners. Internalizing this self-regulating process could be far more effective than any laws and regulations.

Watch out for the next publishorial in your favorite outlet or visit its site for new disclosures.

Published in Republica, 03 November, 2015