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Nepali Media at Crossroad: Can they Mediate Constitution-Making and Peace Processes?

Yubaraj Ghimire, Editor, Newsfront Weekly


Introduction

I am going to touch two vast areas in this paper. First, I want to deal with the state of media currently in Nepal. I might be seen as projecting a very gloomy scenario of the media here. But let me make it clear that I do acknowledge sincerely the growth in professionalism in the Nepali media during the 1990s, especially after advent of multi-party democracy, and the growing influence it had on defending public interest, public policy formulation and projecting Nepal's image abroad. In a situation of on-going violence conflict-sensitivity of media is essential to bring the conflict-torn society back to normal life.

In the second and last part, I will be dealing with the role that media can play in the constitution making process which looks like in limbo. Media certainly has its role to play by educating the public and enabling them to make informed choice about constitutional issues, but in my assessment, the media that is getting increasingly aligned with one or the other side of the political poles, will have far less positive impact that a professional and objective media could have contributed in the process.

Historical Background

One area that really grew and flourished in the decade of 90s in Nepal is the media. The guarantee that the 1991 Constitution of Nepal stood in favor of media freedom and did away with the previous practice of government annulling permit given to the media (print) in the event of their going against the government. This favorable constitutional provision attracted private investment in the media sector. Beginning with Shyam Goenka, an ambitious entrepreneur who set-up Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post in 1993, many others joined in the race.

In fact, it was a phase when the print media in the private sector not only succeeded in acquiring credibility -a tag that until then was monopolized by the government owned Gorkhapatra and the Rising Nepal-but also promoted professionalism in journalism to a great extent attracting talents to join in.

The acquired credibility also came respect and clout to the media that was visible as it not only broke scandals, one after another, forcing parliament to take cognizance of the issue, but also forced the government to act in favor of public interest. In some cases, ministers resigned on their own acknowledging the fact that media exposure should not be taken lightly or dismissed with silence. But power and success at times may have derailing effects. Media watchers say that powers of media at times have been used far less objectively or at times for purpose.
On November 20, the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), an organization that works for media rights and freedom, organized a symposium in Kathmandu on editorial freedom, and corporate interference was cited as one of the biggest threat to Media freedom in the country today.

The concern, no doubt, is appropriate. But the challenges that Nepali media face today are far bigger than we may have imagined. The challenges come from inside as well as outside. Internally, they come from a mindset that media is above the law of accountability. Absence of authority to effectively look into complaints regarding media contents -largely coming from the aggrieved side-like the practices in other democracy creates a situation where 'blackmail' journalism may thrive. In Nepal, Press Council may have been conceived for discouraging such tendencies, but absence of power and authority on one hand, and a recurring practice followed by successive governments to pack it with their political loyalists -of course with notable but rare exceptions-has only made the body ineffective.

As per the available official data, there are more than 3300 dailies, weeklies, fortnightly and journals of various periodicities registered with the government aiming to promote the constitutional rights of people to know about public affairs. About a dozen broad-sheet dailies, at least three of them with editions from outside Kathmandu, cater to the ever increasing demand of the readers in the country. More than 300 FM radio stations, around ten per cent of that in the capital-some of them commercial ones -exist in the country. And there are thirty five TV channels. In addition to a dozen in-operation including the government owned Nepal Television have got the permit to start their business. Growth of media in quality as well as quantity is a healthy sign of growth of a democratic society offering the people multiple choices. But can a country with about 30 million population-only half of it literate and still less educated-sustain this growth especially at times when its economy is not doing all that good because of the prevailing law and order situation ? There is reason to ask: is this a sound investment?

A mindset that we discussed earlier that media is above law perhaps is encouraging more people to invest in the sector so that the clout earned as media owners and practitioners can be used for the success of other business. In a society where impunity is the rule, a media-owners' tag perfectly works. The deeply entrenched and perhaps expanding corporate interest, no doubt, poses a threat to editorial independence which lies in the core of professionalism in the media, but that is not the only challenge that Nepali media faces.

We have already talked about internal problem describing how blackmail journalism flourishes in absence of an effective internal regulatory mechanism and a sort of statutory and effective Press Council. Lengthy legal process to address grievances of those 'vilified' by the media and absence of libel laws have given media a power without accountability in our system. In short, this poses as bigger challenge to the growth of professionalism in the media.

Political Culture of Media

Nepal's politics today stands at the cross road of history. Despite peace accord, interim constitution and Constituent Assembly election deadlock and political uncertainty prevail all around. Hatred and intolerance towards dissenting views define one party's relation with others. This is causing enlightenment deficit in society. The media is not only getting political, it's getting identified with one or the other party or with one or the other polarized groups in politics and becoming weak in critical areas of civic education. In this context, how can they objectively report about many constitutional issues, such as nature of polity, federalism, integration of Maoist combatants in productive life of society, economy, judicial independence, autonomy of governance, foreign policy, land reforms etc and enable citizens to exercise their reasoned choice? In brief, Nepali media faces a situation where objectivity and desired neutrality about the analysis of events, perspectives, ideas and institutions may be the biggest casualty. That, in a way, has all the potential to neutralize the growth of professionalism that Nepali media registered in the post 90s scenario backed by a favorable constitution.

The current political trend is far more hostile towards the media freedom and the principle of independent media as political actors are behaving in pre-peace accord period and seeking monopoly of power than common ground for conflict resolution, socio-economic reforms and timely promulgation of new constitution by May 28, 2010. At least 27 journalists have lost their lives in the years of decade long conflict and after by the Maoists as well as the state. Tika Bista, a 22-year old journalist based in far western Nepal's Rukum district was brutally attacked, and given for dead on December 8 outside her rented house there. The attack came little less than a month after she wrote a critical piece against Maoist atrocities in a local paper. The government has promised an independent inquiry, and hopefully the culprits will be identified and nabbed, but the incident will have a damaging psychological effect on journalists, especially women, in the days to come.

It's not only Maoists who are guided by the politics of arms, violence and hatred. Apart from the Maoists which have got the Young Communist League (YCL) as the party's para-military group, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) has formed Youth Force on the same line. Khum Bahadur Khadka, a prominent leader of the Nepali Congress said recently that his party also needs to raise the armed squads. The militarization of society is high cost for democracy as its principles prefer peaceful compromise of ideology, interest and identity for the rational construction of political order.

In addition to these youth wings, there are more than 109 armed outfits of varied size and complexity, mainly based in Terai-Nepal's plain areas congruous to India-all claming to have political agenda. With these groups depending heavily on arms and violence in establishing their 'political belief', the consequence of journalists challenging their views is not very difficult to speculate about.

In this kind of situation, the question that naturally arises is: what should media be doing to de-link violence from democracy? Shall they align with one or the group for their own protection? Or risk everything and be professional? In a post-conflict phase how can Nepalese media bridge different contesting perspectives of political actors on salient issues and bring the connectors of society for collective action?

There can not be one uniform response obviously in this situation. That is evident from what we read in the print, what we hear and see from the Radio as well as the Television. For instance: The Kathmandu Post editorial (Nov 30.2009) titled 'Indecent rumor' expressed concern over the activities of 'a section that wants the peace process to collapse.' It also accused media for exaggerating 'Maoist atrocities'. Kantipur daily, its sister publication prominently displayed in its front page a news 'Maobadi dwara dhan kabja' (Maoist capture paddy crops). Far more interesting: The Kathmandu Post buried the news of paddy capture in fifth page. The group is not an exception for presenting an inherent. It's rather a rule of the Nepali media today.

Media and the Peace Process

Saving the peace process and encouraging constitution writing process are obviously the part of the duty of the Nepali media as well. After all, despite politically divergent editorials and opinion Nepali media may have pursued during different phase of the conflict, most of the media were one on prescribing the ways, bringing the voice of conflict victims to visibility, highlighting the cost of conflict and benefits of peace. Their view was clear: neither side can win the war, nor it should be settled peacefully and through dialogue, consensus and compromise. This is something that both sides took cognizance of much later.

Maoist chief Prachanda, at the time of coming over ground, and joining the peace process even admitted that winning the state and capturing power through gun was not possible. "We realized it and have joined the peace process honestly" (Prachanda 's press conference June 2, 2006).Moreover, media has a duty to promote and favor democracy as it can survive and expand only in democracy freely.

In fact, the moments of euphoria lasted too long in the life of the nation in the aftermath of King's handing over the power to the political parties. This was also a phase when media stopped being critical to the changed regime. It refused to make critical analysis of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement -that gave power to the government to withdraw cases of Human rights violation, as well as for the non-implementation of its clauses and non-adherence to the code of conduct by the two sides who signed the CPA. The media, like the political parties, were more critical of the monarchy during the period it was under suspension and even after it was scrapped. It did little to bring the actors of the day to accountability.
If media had successfully and faithfully done that the peace process would have been very much on track. And the constitution making process would perhaps moved at desired pace and direction. But as political parties seem more worried now than ever before about the legitimacy of the government, political process and the outcome of the 2006 April-May mass movement if the constitution is not written within the stipulated deadline (May 28, 2009), the concern is now dominating the opinion and editorial views in the print media, and interview based programs of the Television. According to Pradip Giri, a Nepali Congress law maker , the legitimacy of the interim constitution and the government would be gone, and the only office that will remain legal and constitutionally valid would be that of the President.

There are many who do no agree with this view. But the concerns are shared by all. Legal and constitutional experts are divided on whether the CA life can be extended beyond the deadline. If CA is to stick to the deadline, there are now fears that it could be any kind of constitution and not a constitution reflecting people's desire and institutionalizing the change that the 2006 mass movement envisaged as little time is left for debate and deliberation of public about the draft constitution. The fear that the constitution can not be written on time only increase as major parties have not been able to forge a consensus or understanding on the model of political system and that of federalism of future Nepal.

In between many issues have come that have divided the political spectrum. The President's action of asking Gen Rookmangud Katawal as army chief on May 3 within hours of Prachanda (as Prime Minister) dismissing him ignoring the warning of all the partners in the coalition government is one such issue. The media response is equally divided. The Kantipur and Kathmandu Post came out with the story about 'soft coup' blaming that Gen Katawal was out to stage a coup and takeover power. The opinionated story clearly justified the dismissal of the army chief.
Most Constitutional experts however, justify president Yadav's action on two counts: One the Prime Minister appropriated the right of the President who appoints and dismisses new chief on recommendation of the council of ministers, and two the Prime Minister acted against the public stance he took that he would not take any decision without a political consensus.

The Maoists have stalled parliament for the past five months demanding that the President correct the 'constitutional error' he committed-a demand that almost all the other parties are stiffly opposed to. The rigid stance only adds to the rigidity of the stalemate that clearly goes against the spirit of the interim constitution as well as the promised politics of consensus. And the question raised is: Can constitution be written without the politics of consensus being pursued? There is an eloquent pause.

Conclusion

And it is perhaps time for introspection for the Nepali media: why the media that ultimately succeeded in getting the two sides of the conflict-the government and the Maoists -to sign a peace process failed the parties to convince that they must continue to adhere to the politics of consensus? It's mainly because media itself began getting identified with one or the other group of the divided politics. Things are getting worse with declaration of the autonomous provinces, some of them based on caste and ethnicity. This may have a dangerous effect of the country moving towards disintegration. And at least now, media can come forward and warn politicians that the 2006 mass movement, CPA and the 12-point agreement that India mediated and got the pro-democracy parties and the Maoists to sign was to consolidate socio-economic and political reforms, democracy and peace and make the country unified one.

Copyright©2001. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Nepal Office
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