Nearly two months after the emergency was imposed and civil liberties curtailed, it is looking like the unintended consequences of press censorship have begun to run counter to the purpose of the royal proclamation.
The decision to fetter press freedom has resulted in the reduction of media's reach, influence, and credibility shrinking its capacity to deliver to the public even the information that the state wants. A responsive state would have seen the danger of this and quickly lifted curbs. But we hear that even tighter measures to asphyxiate the press are afoot.
Curbs on press freedom seldom work because they undermine the very process of nation building. A modern state is an 'imagined community' created and propagated by the media. Mass media unifies nations in its own special ways. Only an unrepresentative government can fail to take that into account, and at its own peril.
Nepal needs a free press for another very important reason: our supreme law is a statute of liberty. The 1990 constitution doesn't envisage governance by plebiscite as in direct democracies, where important decisions are subjected to referendum. In a representative system like ours, the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary can only be kept continuously accountable to the people by a vibrant press exercising full freedom and unfettered right to information.
In a constitutional democracy, the media is also the terrain where policy issues are freely discussed. The interpreters of constitution in the media must exercise 'a wide range of discretion that inevitably allows, in fact frequently requires, a degree of creativity' that may challenge and even change the constitutional order. The media in that sense is a site of informal legislation.
Our constitution places a lot of authority in the hands of unelected bodies which can only be held accountable by a free press. Wise old Brahmins (nominated by political parties and appointed by the king) man constitutional organs which are constituted, like the supreme court itself, outside the purview of the executive. Other than submitting an annual report to parliament, institutions such as Public Service Commission, Election Commission, Auditor General, or Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority function almost independent of the legislature and the executive. The only agency which can keep a constant watch on them is an independent press. The unprecedented freedom given to the media in the constitution is therefore not unintentional.
Governments even in democracies have a range of options to make the mass media 'behave'. Collusion with media moguls, subsidies for media enterprises, libel laws, taxation, market regulations, licensing, ownership, spin, selective information leaks, distribution of advertising largesse of the state, or if nothing else works, buying off journalists. Censorship and suppression are too crude and violent in civilised countries in this day and age.
Either way, direct government intervention in media content lead to two opposing effects: the potential for informational rent increases if media is perceived to be credible, but the media can only remain credible if it is allowed to cover a range of views in an atmosphere free from unwarranted pressures.
Suspension of civil liberties this time has adversely affected Nepal's image worldwide, and it has cost unprecedented job losses within the country. But those aren't the only reasons to restore press freedom. The best reason is that a free press is in the government's own self-interest. Even an unelected government.
To get real value from media, the state must let it function freely and uphold its trustworthiness. Loss of media credibility give rise to wild rumours, pushes listeners to tune in to clandestine transmissions, and rely on photocopying and cassette recorder journalism. It leads to intensification of unverifiable, and probably dangerous, personal communication. And we are seeing signs of these pre-1990 phenomena now.
Smart governments don't censor, they use spin doctors. After all, you want the people to believe you when you are telling the truth.
The state must restore freedom of the press not just for us, but for its own sake.