Until 12 years ago, in the black-and-white world of the Panchayat years, it was easy to say what ailed Nepali media. We said: give us press freedom, and we'll show you what media can be. The media is now free, but sadly, it has let the country down.
Back in the Neer Shah years when Nepal Television was young, we expected it to learn as it grew. It did learn, but the wrong things. Today, it either has news in officialese or it has crass commercialism of the most vulgar kind. By being a poor imitation of the poorest fare on satellite channels, the NTV is in danger of losing its remaining viewers to cable.
The NTV's mediocrity, however, pales into insignificance when we look at the ongoing coverage of the insurgency. Video footage of the aftermath of fighting and the thoughtless broadcast of gruesome footage of corpses are disturbing enough for adults, but it is having an adverse psychological impact on young viewers. Short of turning off the TV, there is no way of protecting children from being brutalised by insensitive cameramen and irresponsible news editors.
The reason for my rage is personal. But there must be thousands of Nepali parents who have gone through similar ordeals. Isn't it possible to show these tragic scenes with more respect for the dead? What is the advantage of bringing the barbarity of it all into our living rooms? Is it a case of ignorant producers, or are those in charge of propaganda trying out psy-war techniques on the population at large? Either way, it is bad news.
After the royal massacre, my son was so disturbed by the sight on the TV screen of the late king, his mouth agape and flies swarming around him, that he had difficulty sleeping. Then last week there were those savage pictures from Satbaria showing decomposing bodies being pulled out of mass graves with pickaxes. Again, he was deeply affected and couldn't sleep.
It is tempting here to blame the government ownership of media for everything. In the mantra of liberalisation, it is argued that all this would suddenly be set right with privatisation. Don't be too sure. Our experience with privatised broadcast media is not much better.
Private commercial media is often even more insidious in the control of information-it practices what John Pilger calls "the censorship of exclusion", Its focus on the bottom line and the need to please the disbursers of licenses makes it as beholden to the state as the official media. A free media is no longer free when it uses its freedom for partisan expos?s or campaigns against political figures who are rivals of its business mentors.
A glaring recent example was the relentless smear campaign against Girija Prasad Koirala by the owners of a national daily. In its eagerness to portray the then prime minister in a bad light, the publishers went as far as to give the Maoists full play. Wild rumours went to print and on the airwaves as "news", with devastating consequences during episodes like the Hrithik Roshan riots.
This is why we have to look askance at the decision by the Ministry of Information to grant terrestrial telecast rights to Kantipur Publications. Giving one business entity such broad control over the electromagnetic spectrum as well as print media is against the law in many countries. Even in that bastion of laissez faire and free media, the United States, the control of both television and print media by one company in the same territory is not allowed. Here, in the absence of a strong regulatory entity, how can we trust a private business group with so much power over our lives?
The ex-hack presently running the Ministry of Information and Communication must know be familiar with laws in other countries about media consolidation. He chose to ignore them for reasons we can guess at. This does not bode well: neither for democracy nor for a free and pluralistic press. Since the deed has been done, our only hope now is that parliament, the courts, and civil society will realise the enormity of the risks involved.