By Aashish Mishra Kathmandu, Nov. 2: Nepal is no stranger to conflict. It witnessed several conflicts since 1951 when democracy was ushered in by overthrowing the Rana rulers. It experienced a decade-long insurgency led by the then CPN (Maoist) from 1996 to 2006. Similarly, a number of political movements, many of them violent, occurred in the Terai-Madhes region of Nepal since 2007, after the political change of 2006, which continued even during the political transition period.
A list put out by the Government of Nepal in 2009 stated that there were 109 armed groups active in Nepal in various capacities. A majority of them claim to fight for the rights of ethnic minorities and indigenous nationalities. However, some of these groups have entered talks with the government and given up arms since. The government has not released similar lists after 2009. So, in such a situation, have Nepali media been able to exercise sensitivity in reporting the conflicts now and in the past and does the journalist’s code of conduct adequately orient them to do so? The answer to both of them, experts say, is yes but more needs to be done.
“Various provisions of the code of conduct require journalists to maintain special sensitivity and alertness on issues of human lives, public safety, public health and social courtesy during crises like conflicts and natural disasters. So, we do have a framework of guidance,” said Deepak Khanal, spokesperson for the Press Council Nepal. The Press Council is the statutory body that formulates and enforces the journalist’s code of conduct in coordination and collaboration with the Federation of Nepali Journalists, which, as the name suggests, is the umbrella organisation of journalists in Nepal.
“We have guidelines that ask the media to contribute to social cohesion and harmony but the problem lies in the media’s adherence to these guidelines,” Khanal said. In his view, Nepali society has an inclination towards negativity which shapes the way media houses package their news.
“People crave for negative news so the media give them negative news. Media investors treat news as a commodity to sell,” Khanal added. Assistant Professor Pitambar Bhandari, acting programme coordinator at the Department of Conflict, Peace and Development Studies, also shared Khanal’s opinion. Instead of giving unbiased reports of the post-conflict situation Nepal is currently in, the media give content that they believe will help preserve their public constituency, he opined.
“In order to be liked and followed, the media give the people what they want, now what they need,” he shared his observation. “Journalists do not review accords, they do not follow talks and they have still not been able to come out of the cocoon of political news.” Bhandari also felt that Nepali media’s coverage of conflicts was, on occasions, too black and white to be complete. “The news gives individuals and issues a binary colour. People are either right or wrong and events are either cause or effect. Reporters rarely look at the underlying factors of a conflict and study the reasons for the struggle.”
Assistant Professor Bhandari also felt that the existing ethical codes would be adequate to steer conflict-sensitive reporting if journalists followed them. Articles 4 and 5 of the Journalist Code of Conduct 2016, which was last amended in 2019, outline the duties of journalists and mass media. They require media and media personnel to respect human rights, not compromise on the principles of accuracy, balance and objectivity, show special sensitivity and alertness when reporting on human lives and sentiment, not jeopardise social harmony and relations, never incite violence, terrorism and crimes through the dissemination of news or visuals, exaggerate an issue or an event to frustrate or provoke the audience and rectify any errors as soon as possible.
All these provisions, Bhandari believed, were enough to guide conflict-sensitive journalism and if more standards were needed, they should be formulated by individual news organisations and editorial desks. “You cannot write everyone down. Journalists themselves need to be aware and use their conscience and humanity. Media professionals need to understand and internalise the standards rather than have it all dictated to them,” he said. Assistant Professor Chandi Raj Dahal, faculty of Media Studies at the Department of Languages and Mass Communication at Kathmandu University, stressed the need for a media law suited to the needs of the times rather than a revised ethical code.
For instance, journalists are often booked under the Electronic Transaction Act, an act primarily introduced for the banking sector, for their online activities.“Nepal, unfortunately, does not have a new media law that adequately covers the scope of news and journalism in today’s age.”
However, while highlighting the need for updated laws, Dahal also emphasised that any legal provisions introduced should be aimed at regulating, and not restraining, the media. “The problem with introducing formal regulations is that they risk infringing on the freedom of the press, people’s right to expression and information,” Dahal said, adding, “That is why if there is any problem with the media content, it must be solved through awareness and education.”
And this awareness and education should go beyond news organisations and also cover social media pages which are the major sources of news for many young people today, he said. At the same time, he also stated that the media stood accused of inciting conflict when they gave space to perspectives not acceptable to some people. “This is seen when media shed light on issues of gender, caste, ethnicity, oppression and discrimination,” Dahal, who is also a student of conflict studies, shared. “Bringing forth previously unheard voices also brings with it accusations of working against social harmony.”
Nevertheless, every journalist and media organisation in the country needed to respect the laws of the land and adhere to the journalist code of conduct, he said. “This not only enhances professionalism and credibility but also helps them get support – from the authorities and other media professionals – if they get into trouble.”