In early June I met one of the promoters of an English language daily soon to be published out of Kathmandu. He had come to cover the Narayanhiti royal massacre and had dropped by my house to collect sound bites. The proposed English daily was editorially promoted by a group of Indian journalists and financially supported by non-resident Indian venture capitalists.
He said that the money that was available could not support a
new media venture in India, but could go some distance in Nepal. He refused to identify their Nepali partners, but told me that the press had been ordered and a skeleton staff had been hired. I told him that another paper in English meant that those of us who write columns in that language will have an additional option. I should have known that once the word spreads among the self-appointed vigilantes of Nepali nationalism, any foreign direct investment (FDI) in media in Nepal would be interpreted as foreign interference in the "sensitive sector of the Fourth Estate".
Sure enough, last week influential Nepali media bosses said categorically that FDI should not be allowed in the media sector in Nepal to "safeguard Nepali interests". At a discussion organised by Nepal Patrakar Mahasangh on 2 August, the following reasons were reportedly given to support the argument against FDI:
- Since media is the watchdog of nationalism in any country, which nationalism will a foreign-owned media support?
- Media is related to bichar and if foreign investment is allowed, bideshi bichar will spread.
- Nationalistic considerations have forced even countries like India to stop FDI in their media sector in its entirety.
For now, I think that if FDI will result in the enhancement of the capacity of our reporters, feature writers and copy editors, then it is a good idea. I am also open to be persuaded otherwise. But opponents of FDI in media will first have to abandon all factual errors. For instance, it is incorrect to say that India still bans FDI in media.
India has already opened its electronic media market to foreign investors. The most direct impact of this decision has been seen in the dramatic rise of private sector Indian and foreign television in the last few years. The decision to not allow any FDI in the print media was taken by the Indian government in 1955 and several attempts have been made to revise it, most recently during the past year.
Although the Indian government has once again decided to not revise this policy, its decision has not gone unchallenged as is being portrayed by our media bosses. For instance, Swapan Dasgupta, managing editor of India Today, published a sharply worded critique of this government position in his newsmagazine on 4 December 2000. Former Indian finance
minister P Chidambaram writing in the same magazine has pointed out the irony of the print media in India being an articulate promoter of foreign direct investment in services, industry, agriculture, and electronic media while opposing the same in its own sector.
How exactly is foreign investment in media in Nepal detrimental to our "national interests"? The general consensus with which our editorial bosses have opposed FDI is a syndrome of the schizophrenia that characterises our dominant national culture whereby evocation of nationalism has been an effective strategy to prevent further debate and scrutiny of the concerned subject.
Nepali society is not so weak that some media products supported by foreign investment will break its back. What really is at work behind this bogey of nationalism is fear that the mediocrity of those who rule the Nepali media world will be further exposed. But will this really mark the end of Nepali-language based bahunbad that is dominant in our media?
The argument that if FDI were allowed in Nepali media, it would lead to anti-Nepal editorial practice, does not address the logic of the advertisement market. If foreign investors in Nepali media want to make money, then they can only do so by capturing an adequate portion of the Nepali advertisement market. Advertisers can only thrive if they respect the sensibilities of the consumers. And if media products are seen to be "anti-nationalist" in its contents, consumers and advertisers will abandon them with haste. The jingoistic strain of pro-India nationalism in satellite channels promoted by international finance in the Subcontinent must be understood as the attempt of those media outlets to make the Indian middle class feel secure about its own bigoted nationalism including its big-brother-in-the-Subcontinent ego. If a foreign investor-backed media product wishes to thrive in the Nepali advertisement market, it cannot ignore this logic. Hence it will have to peddle lines that are possibly even more pro-Nepal than that of Radio Sagarmatha.
Opponents of FDI also argue that it would make taking a pro-Nepal editorial stance impossible. If editorial independence were fully determined by the business interests of the promoters, then no self-respecting editor or reporter would allow their names to appear in the masthead, or by the articles. If this could not be the case under foreign investment, then I must assume that it is not already the case now. It
would then follow that Kapil Kafle, editor of Nepal Samacharpatra which has taken the lead in opposing FDI in media in Nepal, must already be taking his editorial stance from investors of the Kamana group, including the two new recently inducted promoters.
If Nepali editors and reporters who worked for FDI supported media products in Nepal (such products could not be produced without their participation) could be suspected for their inability to take a pro-Nepal stance, why should we allow institutions like the Nepal Press Institute to use foreign money in Nepal in the name of enhancing the capacity of Nepali journalists? Or it is the case that foreign money can be spent on training individuals and strengthening media institutions without imparting them bideshi bichar, while FDI from those same countries will corrupt Nepali individuals beyond repair?
Opponents of FDI need to remember that the media's ultimate job is to report the truth. If it does this well, the "national" in the much evoked "national interests" will be greatly democratised and the interests of the most disenfranchised Nepalis will be automatically served. And for truth to be told, this discussion will have to include Nepalis who are not afraid of the new global financial regimes. The debate should address, among other things, how to tackle global competition with quality homegrown products.
I am waiting to be convinced that FDI is a bad idea in the Nepali media sector. Any takers?