Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Breaking Views

Nepali media, despite all its flaws, is the only institution that can keep guard over government branches and private enterprises

Dharma Adhikari
The polarized pluralist news media of Nepal often confuse opinion, assertion, innuendos and rumors with facts. Citing an anonymous family source, a section of our media reported last week that music maestro Amber Gurung had died. Hours later, they said he was actually still alive, only to report soon that he had in fact died.

The story was as much about the death of facts in Nepali journalism as it was about the death of Gurung. This is a recurring journalistic vice, made all the more visible once again mainly because of Gurung’s prominent stature. Fresh in our memories are the earthquake and the agitation in Tarai, recent big stories in which facts were often sacrificed at the altars of new media speed, competition or political propaganda.

Thanks to the technology-driven news today, the audience often gets the ring-side view of the news process as the story develops, exposing journalists’ professional lapses, and raising questions about their accountability. And professional foibles, especially relating to content, form a key part of the accountability issue in a polarized pluralist media system (as my last column highlighted).

The live and continuous nature of news process with a high degree of political parallelism means that our democratic experiment is increasingly riddled with misinformation and hoaxes. With the deluge of conflicting content everywhere, the issue of verification in journalism has become all the more pressing.

In a liberal democratic set up, “informing” freely has been internalized as a democratic role of the press. The assumption is that the more informed these citizens are the more likely they are to participate in public life, and the more they participate, the more democratic the country becomes. But if the media misinform, we cannot rule out bigotry, retardation of democracy, a fractured civil society, demagoguery, or even authoritarianism. These are misfortunes to our media that aspire to walk the path of liberal or democratic-corporatist model, the next step in their evolution.

Our media practices and values are in flux. They underscore the limitations of “informing” the public in the messy world of contemporary media politics. The normative imperative of our media today is how citizens are to be informed, and informed adequately and accurately.

The informational role does not accord responsibility on journalists to produce informed citizens, apparently assuming that it will happen automatically once the media will “inform” the public, irrespective of the quality of content or the truthfulness of information. Public participation or feedback is often associated with emotional outpour rather than rational and objective input. It is also true that being more informed, factually and truthfully, does not always lead to more engagement because even less informed people have often participated in public issues. Citizen input in policy rarely matters in terms of final decisions in a world dominated by elite power politics and special interests.

This minimalist and vague informational role championed by media professionals raises a number of questions on the nature of facts, information and audience engagement. In essence, dominant principles of democratic media expose the limitations of the idea of journalistic freedom and responsibility. For instance, what type of freedom constitutes “informing freely”? And, what are the criteria that can help us evaluate responsible use of the freedom? In the face of these questions, but also due to the rising commercial interests of media which threaten the public, it is imperative to reexamine media’s democratic role.

One thing is clear: there are no absolute principles in pluralistic or liberal societies. Yet democratic media roles, practically and ideally, can be gauged in a one-dimensional continuum, with freedom and autonomy at one end and responsibility and commitment on the other. Commitment is often the result of forced or willful conformation.

In the new political order, we are hearing calls for media commitment to rastra nirman. Journalists must self-censor, if not conform to outright official diktats. Preferred views supersede facts. Playing to partisan tendencies, commercial propaganda and falling for the officialese, media outlets break views rather than news. And for the immediacy and interactivity of new technologies, the audience also gets limitless opportunity to pour their feelings and emotions. In the process, facts become the casualties.

From what we see every day, journalism’s claim to truth-telling is a suspect. Misinformation conspires with power and money; it corrupts truth. The way truth is reported today in the media is often without context. Facts are no longer about empirical observation. They are about affirmation of opinion, about purposeful fabrication to bolster one’s position and to discredit the opposition. Although today’s technology is amenable to truthfulness in the news gathering process, media outlets remain extremely evasive when it comes to disclosures. In a newspaper, Amber Gurung was able to earn a pithy note of apology, at the end of a follow-up story. Most other outlets didn’t care about even acknowledging their error, prompting the Press Council Nepal (PCN) to issue a directive for clarification.

The polarized nature of public discourse is making shared assumptions hard, globally, and so also with consensus on social realities. Even the facts of physical and natural sciences are often distorted these days, as seen in the coverage of evolutionary history or climate change issues.
The classic libertarian concept of truth, largely shaped by the Cartesian epistemology, emphasizing detached observation and objective presentation, is eroding fast even in the West. A cultural shift is in place. The rational-observable facts of the West seem to be increasingly giving way to the meditative-speculative facts of the East.

In principle, our constitution provides for the scrutiny of government, free and open flow of information and limited control of the press, as in a libertarian model. In practice, the application of press freedom remains unclear. Is it an absolute right, an end in itself, or a means to an end? What if the freedom is abused by the press, as is often the case?

The liberal model wields enormous power for its own ends. Its adherence to negative freedom (freedom from control) and its disregard of positive freedom (freedom to act) have largely ignored the importance of classical liberalism’s protection of free inquiry and free choice for public good.

Viewed in this context, some journalistic advocacy and activism, one motivated by public interest rather than by partisan interest, is desirable. For our democracy to function better, our pluralist media must go beyond simply (mis)informing the public; they must help the public to cultivate standards of democratic citizenship and communication in their pursuit of a truly informed and engaged public. That is the path to Rousseau’s “common good”.

In a polarized pluralist media system like ours, with new political and economic structures and a press in its formative stage, the basic principles of democratic media—freedom, the right to know and professionalism—dominate our media reform discourse. Since our electoral democracy is dominantly elitist with scarce direct input from the citizens, the media, despite all its flaws and vagaries, is the only institution that can keep guard over other branches of government as well as private enterprises, often holding them responsible and accountable.

Above all, media’s own accountability, via internal audits, research, media criticism, education, public access, etc., should be promoted and strengthened. Just as pluralism marks our media politics, a multi-pronged and broad-based accountability system that encourages genuine public participation and sound-rational feedback, should guide our media.

Published in Republica, 14 June 2016