Freedom to be responsible
The three branches of government are ganging up against the fourth estate.
FROM ISSUE #11 (27 SEPT 2000 - 03 OCT 2000) | TABLE OF CONTENTS
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We may not be shooting the messenger yet, but messengers are getting enough hints from the executive, legislative and judicial branches to lay off. Even for journalists, it seems, no news is bad news. Consider the recent spate of bad omens for the press:
. The Public accounts Committee of parliament summons the station manager of Radio Sagarmatha and wants a news source revealed
. Communications Minister Jai Prakash Prasad Gupta fumes about 'anti-democratic reporting' and wants the press to behave itself
. Our learned judges guard their privileges with the threat of Contempt of Court against any hack caught sniffing around It appears that the three wings of the state are ganging up against the fourth estate. The media should just be a mouthpiece, amplifying their proclama-tions, toeing the line, buttering the boss, being the propaganda organ. Old habits die hard.
The tradition of a drummer going around the village announcing the wishes of its chief continues to this day even if the message is coming in through the cable or dish antennae. In hierarchi-cal societies, the media-be they the old bhat and katuwal or the modern reporter or commentator-is expected to sing hosannas in praise of the powerful. But in a democracy, the media becomes an essential mechanism for check and balance. It has to be allowed the freedom to be irresponsible. Demo-cratically- elected governments may not like what the media says about them, but they must protect their right to say it. That is why thin-skinned politicos, or those who have a lot to hide, don't last long.
Unlike the fourth estate, the three branches of government (parliament, executive and the courts) are funded by the tax-payers' money. They are accountable to the people. And since the press represents the public on a day-to-day basis, the government should ideally be transparent towards it. The rulers are elected by the people to run the country for a limited period, and as the people need to know how they are performing, the rulers need to communicate with those who chose them through this conduit. The independent press does not run on government grants, which is actually public money. It should run on its own resources, and is accountable to no one except its readers, listeners or viewers. If the media's foot soldiers break laws while pursuing that objective, then prosecute them by all means. But any call by government officials for the media to pursue some "higher mission" rings hollow. Even the gutter-press and sewer- channels will rot if they don't have a readership.
The press does not need the commu-nication minister fuming about what a newspaper should or shouldn't publish. He is free to choose what he likes to read, or what he wants to write. In the same way, he should not be offended if other writers and readers exercise a similar freedom. The press is not accountable to him, it is answerable to the public directly. And it does so at regular intervals, at least more regularly than he answers his own constituency. The press is on trial every time it publishes, broadcasts or telecasts something, it does not have to wait for an election to face its electorate.
Even in more mature democracies, politicians regularly accuse the media of being irresponsible. Our politicians are no different. They are just more inse-cure. The media must protect its independence. That is its most precious possession. It must assert its right to seek the truth, even if it is subversive. Truth is invariably subversive. It is only those who want to hide in dark corners and do things secretively who benefit from a controlled press.
In the 1980s, the London Times columnist Bernard Levin challenged a government call for the press to be responsible. He wrote: "The press has no duty to be responsible at all, and it will be an ill day for freedom if it should ever acquire one...we are and must remain vagabonds and outlaws, for only by so remain-ing shall we be able to keep the faith by which we live, which is the pursuit of knowledge that others would like unpursued, and making of comment that others would prefer unmade."
If the Public Accounts Committee wants Prateek Bhandari of Radio Sagarmatha to reveal his sources, why don't they first make a law to that effect? The Honourable Jai Prakash, who happens to be an ex-journalist himself, would do well to reflect over whether or not he was once responsible. The very idea of responsibility reeks of authoritarianism when it is imposed from outside. Responsibility is some-thing that comes from within, and members of the press are no less responsible just because they do not agree with one interpretation of "national interest".
There is some truth in the allegation that a section of the Nepali press (of the extremist fringe in particular, and other Trojan Horses in general) is not adhering to its own code of conduct. But that is too specious a ground to pour scorn over the entire media, as Honourable Jai Prakash has been doing lately at every opportunity. Honourable Minister, are there no black sheep in politics, and do all sections of the government honour their commitments to the constitution? Or is the press, particularly the mainstream media, comparatively a better performer? You decide, I have my own biases.
The press has become a favourite whipping boy of all sections of power. The Nepali press must take that as a compliment. It means at least some of us in the profession are doing some-thing right. Watchdogs aren't supposed to be cute and cuddly, they are sup-posed to be cute and cuddly, they jare sup-posed to snarl .