2-8 May 2014 #705

Bypassing the bosses

On World Press Freedom Day, there are more reasons to be optimistic than pessimistic about the Nepali media
Anurag Acharya
On 3 May, we mark World Press Freedom Day. The week will be replete with self-praise by journalists, owners of big media patting themselves on the backs for upholding democracy and defending people’s right to information.

Editorials will be written and newly elected functionaries at the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) will reprint last years’ statement, making familiar pledges. The next day, we will go back to doing what we do best: making the most dim-witted look grand in overblown profiles, reprinting press releases and being satisfied with the shallow, superficial and puerile.

Two-and-one-half decades into the free market, news has become another commodity to be bought and sold, and what seems to matter increasingly is not its content but how it is packaged.

Two months ago, the Centre for Investigative Journalism where I am program manager exposed a politician for his explicit role in a terror attack which killed five and injured scores of innocent people in Janakpur. Since then, the mainstream media has brought out bits and pieces of the ex-minister’s past criminal record. But not with the same prominence as it earlier printed his garlanded picture after he won the CA elections riding from Dhanusha on money and muscle power. Both were news, packaged differently but sold to the same public.

When the Khil Raj government proposed Lok Man Singh Karki as CIAA chief last year, apart from a fringe section, the entire media fraternity was up in arms against the appointment of a man with questionable integrity in a constitutional body. A year later, all is forgotten and the same media is highlighting his preachy remarks on good governance, his past record air brushed over.

An investigative report on the plunder of the Chure forests that forced the Ministry of Forests to take immediate action against illegal sand mining and stone crushing industries doesn't make headlines anymore. That's not because all illegal industries have been shut, just that the country has moved on and so has the media.

The beauty of 21st century corporate media is that it cashes in on tales of glory as well as heart wrenching tragedies. Celebrating movers and shakers then becomes as necessary as getting the poor to enact their misery on camera. Revenue is governed by page views, hits and news stand sales, so media creates its own celebrities to perpetuate itself. The public service role of media is sidelined as it serves corporate interests.

To be sure, media in Nepal has grown from strength to strength since 1990. It survived the absolute monarchy, and was always at the forefront of the struggle for democracy and press freedom. It outlasted autocratic regimes that tried to stifle the people’s voice. It has exposed wrongdoing in high places, exposed human rights violations during the conflict and kept the issue alive afterwards.

After King Gyanendra’s information blackout and censorship, media fought back with blank op-eds and empty editorials. The Nepali media has played its adversarial role, standing firm against powerful regimes. Today, the media is free from state censorship and journalists do not face an overt threat from the government.

However, a weak law and order situation, insecurity, the political-economic interests of media bosses have turned many journalists from watchdogs into lapdogs. When reporters do not get their salaries, they are too low to motivate them to do a better job.

The Internet now provides a platform to bypass official controls, self-censorship and corporate influence. The news of VAT-evading business houses and shoddy government deals may not find headlines in the squeamish mainstream media, but journalists are blowing the whistle online. The content is shared and magnified through social networking sites. As the internet and smartphone penetration rates go up, the information revolution will transform the country, strengthen the Nepali media and with it democracy.

In her recently published book The Past as Present: Forging Contemporary Identities Through History, prominent Indian historian Romila Thapar points towards the need for multiple interpretations of historic events, since what has been documented as history in the mainstream and academic writings thus far is at best a perspective and at worst an incomplete narrative.

The powerful of society may have been privileged in creating a selective history as Thapar claims, but their days of privilege over public memory are over.



Read also:

Just free EDITORIAL

Crisis in Chure

In contempt of the republic

TIMELINE- Royal rollback

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