14-20 June 2013 #660

Breaking views

As elections look more probable, the mainstream media also becomes an extension of the political parties
Anurag Acharya
Last week, during a televised interview a Madhesi leader expressed his commitment to democracy. The interviewer couldn’t help pass a snide and cynical comment: “But you worked closely with the Maoist-led government, how can you be a democrat?”

A few days earlier, a radio interviewer belittled the political intelligence of Rekha Thapa in a condescending and patronising way for joining the UCPN (M) and goaded her for joining a party that was responsible for the death of 16,000 Nepalis. “If you are fond of helping fellow human beings, why didn’t you just stick to extracurricular charity like your fellow actors?” he asked her.

Sure, these are public figures or celebrities with political ambitions and the media’s role is to ask tough questions, but it proves just how Nepal’s political polarisation is now reflected in the mainstream media. As the possibility of poll dates being announced by the Chief Jusitce-led government increases, electoral competition among the Big Four is manifested in editorialised headlines and slanted op-eds.

When political adversaries snarl at each other through the medium of journalism, opinion makers and opinion seekers in the old and new media are dividing themselves into opposite sides of the field. At a social gathering this week, a Congress leader admitted casually that the tussle over provisions of thresholds and candidature in the electoral bill was nothing but a clash of egos. But when this clash is played out in the media, there is less chance of a solution being found.

The appointment of Lokman Singh Karki as the head of CIAA and the Trisuli 3A controversy got sustained coverage, as rival broadsheets pushed opposing sides. Journalism rules were openly flouted as news masqueraded as views and the line between fact and opinion was blurred.

“The journalist seemed more keen on firing at the prime minister by resting a gun on my shoulder than on reporting the facts of the matter to the public,” said an aggrieved senior bureaucrat dragged into the Trisuli story.

To be sure, there is nothing new in all this. Despite improvements in professionalism of journalists in Nepal, the media still unleashes smear campaigns on companies that refuse to advertise and those who blackmail and lie are not exceptions. As the elections get closer, this is bound to become worse unless the Election Commission lays down strict media guidelines.

Senior hardcopy journalists who started the popular investigative online portal, ‘Setopati’, were greeted last week by the launch of an unabashedly copy-cat ‘Ratopati’ that owes its existence to the UCPN (M). A publisher’s note on Ratopati said it could counter the ‘dominant narrative of the mainstream media’ which, it claimed was ‘status quoist and biased’.

As journalist and media critic John Pilger points out, it is ironic that with the advancement in media technology it is not just traditional means of journalism that are getting obsolete, but its honourable traditions as well. Even before the battle for ballots begin, the battle for hearts and minds of the electorate has begun and the media has become an extension of parties and leaders to sell their political viewpoints and smear rivals.

The advent of social media, it was hoped, would level the playing field and democratise the space monopolised by the mainstream press. But the new media just reflects the political biases, ownership patterns, and commercialism of the old media. Despite its exponential growth, Nepal’s cyberspace is not being used so much to access information but for communication and entertainment. And when it is, the users are mainly male city-dwellers. No doubt, social networking sites have given a voice to those marginalised, but crucial issues of state restructuring and inclusion are skewed by the domination of the traditional elite.

Nationwide annual opinion polls carried out over successive years by this newspaper have shown that of all institutions, the public’s trust in the media is by far the highest. But it won’t stay that way if journalists start flying party flags so openly.

The media is an essential part of the check-and-balance in a democracy. And it is when the legislature, executive, and judiciary are weakened that the role of the fourth pillar – the independent media – becomes even more critical. We are in the business of agenda-setting, not consent manufacturing.

Anurag Acharya is program manager at the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ).


Other columns by Anurag Acharya

Including the excluded

Easier said than done

Republic of bananas

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