Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mediterranean Tremors

A coherent policy on integrating all forms of media, including platforms like internet, mobile and social networks is the need of the hour

Dharma Adhikari
One persistent question concerns freedom and accountability of Nepali media in covering major public issues. Content is profuse today, so an easy target that is often derided for bias, distortion, omission and glibness. The question reflects a deep frustration that the public has been shortchanged by the media even in the new open political order. The yearning that citizens had to finally enjoy a free and responsible media continues to be inhibited by the frenzied, erratic and at once tepid nature of our media reform efforts.

The liberal free-press rights introduced following the democratic reforms of the 1990s and the entry of market forces led to a staggering growth of both government and private media. Unfortunately, despite improvements in free press legislation, the democratization of media—the core of the reform question—did not translate into structural improvements or professional practices.

Relaxing of state control did not result in their autonomy or independence; most outlets continued to pursue their partisan interests while others reflect their political tendencies in subtle ways. Media reform efforts—not yet a concentrated grassroots reform agenda—have so far been characterized by disparate lobbying efforts and activism, for instance, the crusade for press freedom, liberalization of public airwaves, media transparency, women's empowerment, and justice for the marginalized groups.

The prolonged transition, marked by political disjuncture, lax oversight and poor self-regulation, has further exposed the shortcomings of our mainstream media that are fast taking a commercial turn. Mass appeal has become the standard. Public interest is now secondary. The challenge today is to de-commodify media and break the hegemony of the market in order to restore public role of the media.

A democratic media reform in a federalizing country means that policy formulation addresses regional grievances and involves inputs from a cross section of society, which is not the case in Nepal. Besides, emergence of new forms of media and leaps in new technologies along with new political sensibilities and wider public access offer new opportunities for reforming our media.

Viewed in the context of world press systems, Nepal's media, long subject to authoritarian rule, is in a developmental stage. Our constitutionally guaranteed press rights remain tenuous and many media outlets continue to depend on state subsidies or other forms of patronages.

Nepal fits what Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini call the "Mediterranean Model" (Polarized Pluralist Model) of media. High-circulation press, neutral commercial media or facts-oriented journalism, strong professionalization, institutionalized self-regulation, strong public service broadcasting, and early democratization characterize the Liberal or Democratic-Corporatist models of more mature democracies. In contrast, the Polarized Pluralist model is elite-oriented with limited-circulation newspapers but widespread electronic media. It is characterized by delayed development of press freedom and commercial media, economically marginal publications, high political parallelism (partisan bias, political connections, activism by journalists, etc), political focus and advocacy journalism, weak professionalization of press, "savage deregulation", strong state intervention and low regulation of commercial media.

These patterns are rooted in the region's political polarization, high degree of ideological diversity and conflict. Politically, the authors note, delayed development of liberalism in the Mediterranean is associated with authoritarianism, strong role of political parties, clientelism and weak rational-legal authority. Some of these sound eerily familiar to us in Nepal.

Reform issues
Our need for reform is, thus, dictated by the stage of our media development and our unique socio-cultural experiences. Priority must go to, among others, on breaking political control or corporate monopolies, professionalizing the press, instituting accountability, introducing genuine public service media, and supporting independent and alternative forms of media with the objective to promote rights, equality and social justice.

A coherent policy on the above, integrating all forms of media, including platforms like the internet, mobile and social networks, is the need of the hour. A draft on media policy has been making rounds for several years but it is yet to see the light of the day. The erratic and frenzied policy formulation currently underway seems like a musical chair, without a winner.

Laws and policies, in accordance with the new constitution and international benchmarks, must cover key topics, in particular, media concentration, cross ownership, mergers, foreign direct investment, licensing airwaves, community media, public service media and digital literacy, etc. More legislative steps will have to be taken for new regulatory agencies and to restructure old ones at federal or provincial level.

Another accompanying element includes distribution of communicative resources, such as subsidies, grants, licenses, media literacy tools, broadband access, etc. Current miserly subsidy arrangement is fraught with abuse. The idea of Media Academy floated by the Ministry of Information and Communication (MoIC), though a positive incentive, is already mired in political controversy. Let's hope it does not degenerate into a recruiting ground for party cadres.

For decades, decision-makers have talked about turning government outlets into public service media. Now is the time to act to make a meaningful difference amid a sea of commercial content. Sooner rather than later, provincial governments will launch daily newspapers, radio and TV stations for their states, creating a media boom across the country as well as raising questions about the nature, role and power of such channels there.

Continued state intervention, commercialization of media, low capacity to regulate commercial outlets, abuse of airwaves, naive pronouncements by regulatory bodies such as the Press Council Nepal (PCN)—that self-censorship will characterize journalism in the days to come— and veiled threat that journalists will be screened via tests, if not licenses for professional entry, are all indicative of Mediterranean tremors in our media oversight mechanism.

Increased government or bureaucratic action against journalists, in the form of fabricated charges of drug possession, extortion, hooliganism, and corruption are not uncommon in post-communist and neo-authoritarian Eastern Europe. In light of the converging media landscape and for greater regulatory autonomy, it has become imperative to reform PCN, for instance, in line with the independent media authorities of Canada or Australia.

On the professional front, more fact-based reporting will help balance advocacy, incrementally. Complete objectivity is impossible, but independence, verification, fairness and adequate sourcing can strengthen professionalism. Increased coverage of regional, local and underprivileged groups, adherence to high ethical standards and self-regulation offer the best path to the "purification" of journalists, to borrow from the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ).

Finally, any reform initiative in Nepal must also consider media education and digital literacy as essential. As one Canadian slogan reads ("Know the media; be the media; change the media"), we not only need to gain critical insights into media content and structures but also to produce our own alternative content. Individual watchdog and fact-checking efforts are possible with new media technologies, and in a big way. But technology is not the end. You can always fact-check a fact-checker.

For a still evolving media system, I believe an incremental rather than a radical path is the way forward.

Published in Republica, 31 May 2016