Monday, February 11, 2019

Bright Side of Nepali Media

Conventional focus on dominant religions, ethnicities, gender-orientations and culture still holds, but the media now appear increasingly open-minded in the coverage of minority groups and identities

By Dharma Adhikari
The conventional watchdog role of journalism is occupied more with the dark underbelly of human affairs than with positive stuff. This is also true of the meta-analysis of media writing, although the volume of media criticism is startlingly low in our journalism. The few occasional pieces or commentaries are always replete with loud cries of despair over the current journalistic crisis.The crisis is real. With new technologies, marketing automation and personalized advertisement, the traditional revenue model has broken down. The profit logic reigns, leading to talent flight, loss of journalistic autonomy, and credibility.

In our local context, critics frequently bemoan shady business practices, emerging monopolies, unabated exploitation of news workers, deterioration of content quality, digital vitriol, partisanship, bias and exclusion in news coverage and, intermittently, an interventionist state. Over the decade, I have often (but not always) joined the chorus of nitpickers, forecasting gloom in the media industry. Is the situation so hopeless?

Here, I try to do some mind map­ping to identify its encouraging facets. Scholars Daniel C. Hallin and Paolo Mancini proposed an analysis framework, in which four media dimensions are crucial in the development of a national media system: growth of mass circulation press, links between the media and polit­ical parties, journalistic profession­alism, and state intervention. Within Nepal’s historical and cultural context, I see four more dimensions as equally important: the extent of commercialization and market forces, geographic reach, nature and extent of audience engagement, and cultural import.

My observations may appear a bit inflated. They help in going only so far as to play an optimist.

Press development: Measured in terms of quantity and speed of expansion, the growth of Nepal’s media is astonishing, and is com­parable with any developed media system of the world. Though quality remains a key concern, platform choices are wide today. Regionally, Nepal was one of the first countries to embrace online journalism and it has struggled steadily to keep pace with the digital revolution.

Provincial language media are now in the stage of expansion or revival. The mainline vernacular Nepali press has grown in its influ­ence and reach, so much so that many journalists who previously wrote only in English now compete to put their bylines in the vernacu­lar. Few capitals in the world publish more than two broadsheet English dailies but Kathmandu boasts of four. Our English language press is a promising sector to watch as Nepal is now among the countries with the fastest growth of English language speakers, with one study reporting that a quarter of our population already speaks this language.

Innovation is integral to press development. The FM radio revolution was a transformative milestone. Overall, the industry has been a laggard in adopting new tech and approaches, but increasingly, it has woken up. It no longer has the luxury of ignoring innovations. Digital-first, data and analytics, multi-media content, and most recently, HD TV, have become familiar buzzwords. The online journalism wave is propelled more by imitation than by innovation, but a few start-up news portals show promising signs of journalistic transformation.

Vigilance on press freedom: The growth of a free and vibrant press within a brief period is another remarkable achievement. The formidable custodial role of journalists and activists has repeatedly foiled state interventions, and provided impetus for self-regulation. In recent times, Nepal has served as a beacon of press freedom even for the more mature regional press systems, such as India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Political parallelism: The links between the media and political par­ties now run so deep and wide that the media have largely been captured by political parties, elites and special interests. Minus partisanship and propaganda you get pluralism by party affiliations. A consoling feature is that the market logic is forcing pluralism by content, if not the gradual death of party press.

Market forces: Although today corporatization, ownership, financing transparency and commercialization have become key issues, the emergence of “alternative” media and start-up digital press have helped democratize the medi­ascape. Financial strength of some media houses has created the conditions for institutional development and professionalization of the press.

Professionalization: With expansion, good journalism output has arguably increased over time, but it remains disproportionate to the glut of content in the information ecosystem. The shining spot is the extraordinary individual self-sacrifice of news workers as well as solo online journalists who form the foot-soldiers of the industry, and who work mostly on voluntary zeal. In-house self-improvement measures are scarce and many toil underpaid.

In no other time in our history have we seen so many self-educated and self-trained journalists, working for domestic or even international media outlets. Many study and even temporarily practice journalism for causes beyond journalism. The generous byproduct of this individually driven journalistic phenomenon is the gradual socialization of the journalistic methods of accuracy and verification, a tremendous contribution in an age in which journalistic acts, if not journalists or journalism, are greatly prized.

Audience involvement: Increased literacy, and expanding digital and social media environment have helped to dramatically increase audience or ‘prsosumer’ influence, thrusting them into the role of being their own gatekeepers and editors. The perceived “influence”, however, is overlaid with credible charges of abuse, vitriol, trolling, misogyny, disinformation and the like. The positive side is that the audience is highly engaged in form, if not in substance. At the same time, the self-correcting nature of the interactive platforms has motivated and even enabled many users to volunteer in fact-checking and verification, promoting media literacy.

Geographic reach: This is a crucial dimension for a land-locked Nepal with difficult geography, and the situation is further aggravated occasionally when our southern neighbor tries to muzzle the press by choking the supply of essential goods, including newsprint. With universal mobile coverage, increasing internet penetration, as well as regional editions of major newspapers, media reach is no longer a daunting issue, hence the charges of ‘Kathmandu-centrism’ are heard less often these days. Even in geographic content coverage Nepal is making strides—though more is desirable in terms of quality and breath of topics—with countless radio stations and hyperlocal newsportals, at a time when many local newsrooms in the west are dying fast.

Cultural considerations: Conventional focus on dominant religions, ethnicities, gender-orientations and culture still holds, but the media now appear increasingly open-minded in the coverage of minority groups and identities. Cultural representations, newsroom diversity, gender equity, and most recently, sexual harassment and abuse, have been the subjects of some of the most intense debates on Nepali media. A related positive example concerning our media’s cultural orientation is visible increase in the local programming and content, including advertisement on television. Not long ago, every channel relied heavily on foreign programs and ads, in Hindi or English. And, remember those commercials dubbed in Hindpali, an awful blend of Hindi and Nepali?

The naysayer in me found it very hard to acknowledge these positives! Can we identify more encouraging trends ?

Published in The Annapurna Express, 08 February 2019