2-8 May 2014 #705

Just free

World Press Freedom Day is a timely reminder for us in the Nepali media to protect the freedom to be fair.

On 3 May the world will mark Press Freedom Day. Although dedicated to journalists who struggle for the freedom to uncover the truth, the day actually commemorates the citizen’s right to know. Journalists are only defending that right to information every individual must have to allow the system of democracy to function as designed.

Democracy needs participation of the people to vote so as to stimulate collective action for societal betterment. But participation is not possible without free and open communication. For the Nepali media it has been one long struggle to create an open society and defend press freedom.

From the Rana period to 30 years of the partyless Panchayat system, through the post-1990 democracy years and the decade of conflict, the return of an autocratic king and the past seven years of the peace process, the media has repeatedly struggled to protect not just its own freedom, but also the political rights of citizens.

Many times over the past 60 years, the media has been at the forefront of successive pro-democracy movements in Nepal. We in the media have often been singled out for attacks by both the extreme left and the extreme right for this activist role. These two poles of the political spectrum are by nature pro-populism and anti-pluralism, for control and against transparency. We have seen in our own recent history how both the radical right and left are in cahoots to squeeze the middle democratic space.

Whatever Freedom House may say, one can’t be ‘partly free’. Freedom is an absolute. The fourth estate’s role is to be a part of the checks and balance in a democracy, the necessity of playing an adversarial (but not partisan) role to the power of the state. At times of prolonged post-war political transition like the one we are going through now, battered democratic institutions are trying to get back on their feet. The legislature struggles with performance legitimacy, the executive is ripe with contradictions and infighting, the independence of the judiciary (as we are seeing in the Supreme Court drama this week) itself is compromised by politicians.

It is at times like these, when the three pillars of democracy are fragile, that the media’s fourth pillar must help buttress the system. Unfortunately, despite its long history of struggle and constitutionally guaranteeed freedoms, we see an inexplicable erosion of commitment to healthy public debate. There is an attempt to justify controls, excuse the use of political violence, and instead of being a check on abuse of power the press allows itself to be a part of state-sponsored witch-hunts.

Willingly or unwittingly, it plays cheerleader to the state. It becomes an enthusiastic ally in deflecting debate away from human rights to foreign investment in the media. The past weeks offer lessons to the proponents of a free press that constitutional guarantees are not enough to protect freedom of expression. Freedom is like a rubber band, you have to stretch it to make it work. Press freedom must be defended by its maximum application.

A society that doesn’t stand up for justice for survivors and relatives of victims of the conflict cannot guarantee social justice either. If the voice of conflict victims can be silenced, what hope is there for journalists to be heard? When transitional mechanisms do not respect international laws, foreign investors will lose their confidence in the rule of law. A media that deliberately misuses freedoms to sow confusion and disinformation cannot be a defender of fairness and justice. As we have seen elsewhere in the region and the world, xenophobia and ultra-nationalism is then the last refuge of scoundrels.

In a society cursed by inequality, discrimination and exclusion, it is not as important for the media to be objective as it is to be fair. To be fair is to give more weightage to those who don’t have a voice, the downtrodden and the left out. For tens of thousands of Nepali families who can’t yet have closure, the war never ended. And if it hasn’t ended for them, it hasn’t ended for the rest of us either.

Read also:

Bypassing the bosses ANURAG ACHARYA

Nepal’s people phenomenon KANAK MANI DIXIT

Press under pressure KUNDA DIXIT

Justifying the justices BINITA DAHAL

Haunted by ghosts of the past RUBEENA MAHATO

TIMELINE - Royal rollback

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