Saturday, 4 December, 2021

Democratic Functions Of Media

Dev Raj Dahal


In a collective choice of national envisioning Nepali media have performed vital roles. They remained hostile witness of special condition of Nepal-- political transition from violent conflict to civil peace and assumed constructive roles to awaken citizens to the state of democracy, defend their rights and shore up their informed participation in public affairs. It is definitely tough because of high political dynamics, erosion of formal institutional governance and hitch in the process of achieving the fundamental tasks set by the Nepali Constitution. Democratic functions of media presuppose freedom of the press, editorial freedom and public security. It is critical to engage with the public in a reflective, rational communication and enforce each other’s’ accountabilities to restore Nepalis’ confidence in the polity.
The self-perception of media is obvious: custodian of public interest. But their effort for self-emancipation from instrumental image remains. Any event, issue or policy the public find useful is reported in the press. Internal structures of media are, hence, critical to their democratic roles. News is public goods. Any effort to cover, privatise, twist, deform and suppress the marketplace of ideas cuts the very public duty the media fiercely stand for, mirror the pulse of public and provide outlet for the public to express through letters to the editor column. Public's right to know, ingrained in the Nepali Constitution, seeks free flow of information through the autonomy of media from the corruption of society's dominant interests. This freedom is neither cost-free nor without certain democratic requirements.
Nepalis access to information is central to know the condition of democratic order and allay the social tensions oiled by hazy communication controlled by the power of technology, ideology, interest and identity. This is why autonomy is eagerly defended by journalists, publishers, owners, courts, civil society and citizens. Without the autonomy of public sphere for deliberation and action where media are situated, neither democracy in the internal life of cultural industries is possible nor does it enable them to work in the public interest beyond flexible economic and technological control. The ways Nepali journalists frame public issues and provide the flow of news and views are thus pertinent in filling the basic preconditions for their own constitutional needs.  Democratic functions of media entail:
Politicisation of citizens: Journalists are the most valuable means to translate political concepts into everyday language to make them clear to ordinary Nepalis, carry out informed debate and engage them in deliberation as a public duty.  Politicisation, not partisanisation, of citizens frees them from tribal swamps and increases consciousness, volunteerism and accountabilities. As a watchdog of democracy, free and fair media protect the freedom and rights of citizens against the encroachment by powerful actors - the state, polity, government, political parties, corporate groups and even militant ones. Democracy is at stake if only the powerful voice is taken up as a voice of reason. In a country of minorities like Nepal micro minorities are conscience keepers.
A culture of pluralism in the media suffers if their voices are silenced. They can add little to shape public opinion, democratic will and national identity. Interest groups for reasons of power, wealth and advertisement of their products tend to be enclosed rather than opened to the contesting views about national issues. Group-enclosed media fail to cultivate a civil society central to defend civic ideals, virtues, practice and judgment. They reflect only the partial reality in news, views, agenda and will and fail to release the potential for a pluralist sense of justice. They suffer from moral inversion and irresponsibility.
Sensitivity to human condition: The struggle of Nepali journalists to rationalise public institutions and society constitutes the core debate to influence the democratic evolution of this nation. This involves also media rules and sincere implementation of Right to Information Act, Working Journalists’ Act and many associated laws that safeguard their rights, freedom and integrity including the rights of citizens to seek and get essential information pertaining to public affairs. Nepali journalists have an important duty to defend the social justice of media workers in the government and corporate sector, who find it difficult to maintain a balance between the values and needs required by their profession to defend and the profit imperative of media owners.
But, there are grey areas too. Small media houses keep no boundary between owners, reporters and editors as they play multiple roles and respond to Nepal’s diverse public sometimes even exposing the emptiness of mainstream media analysis who often seek to privatise the public sphere, degenerate national politics and jump on the bandwagon of global trends. The sensitivity to context requires media to overcome structural injustice, uplift society towards modernity, democracy and human rights and their role in instilling democratic consciousness connected with language, bodily expression and action.  
Primacy of public interest: The collection of views of public figures and ordinary citizens, articles, opinions and facts on political matters is important to frame public agenda. Knowledge about legal, social, economic, political and ecological issues allows Nepalis an informed participation in public affairs and continuous rationalisation of laws, norms and practices. This makes political change orderly and peaceful. Nepalis require not only a multitude of facts but critical perspectives about issues, needs and concerns. Very often in a hurry to produce first news facts are at times fabricated. Social media of Nepal are prone to this vice though they are considered a boon to individual self-expression and human closeness. Still, they are searching a sense for their future.
Any penchant for this evil stifles the media credibility, code and ethics and evades them from the duty of fair communication. In a varied society like Nepal, cultural-sensitivity of journalists is essential to normatively work towards highlighting the common ground and inform, educate and excite public interest to resolve problems. Obviously, vocational ethos precedes private interest of journalists. The rate of geopolitical incursion into Nepal’s cultural industries reflects the hidden warfare of media houses and the use of their muscle to dispel journalist groups’ howling about its negative effects on the nation.
Scrutiny of the circuits of predators and feedback to citizens are their public duty. Since the rules of political morality are created by leaders, Nepali journalists must inform the public and provide them a critical sense of inquiry to judge their attitude, behaviour and action towards their given duty to achieve the interest of the public in common. The democratic functions of media are: muster public interests, express their demands, channel demands, communication between leaders and citizens and support for the public strategy of collective action in the entire course of democratisation.
Freedom from Thought-Conditioning: Media freedom is a sign of the state of democracy in Nepal. Law-based freedom protects the polity and social cohesion. The element of freedom is heavily loaded with the responsibility to society. The evolution of rational analytical skills has spread the values of greater openness to social change and put critical questions on blind faith, institution, authority and legitimacy patterns. The conscious control of ideas, institutions and practices has moved private life (domestic violence, child abuse, respect to elders, suicide, etc.) into a matter of state law, expunged the division between the public and the private sphere and even politicized the social rights.
Freedom of the press is central to citizens’ free will. Popular sovereignty and right to information are allied. In old days, freedom entailed liberty from government authority only. But now owing to the de-centering of power, the sources of threat to this freedom have become diffused. Ironically, the operation of media under the structural condition of spatial, social and economic inequity has tapered the vigour of right to information. The weak public security makes Nepali media less immune from the fear of attack by violent groups. The growth of secure national communicative space is essential condition of public life in Nepal and the visibility of weak public. The ruthless competition among the media owners in the urban areas for the supply of information and commentary has turned them commercial while the rural and remote parts face information deficit, financial crunch as advertising agencies are almost nil, suffer from a lack of professionalism and other vital prerequisites. This gulf, monopoly, censorship, inadequate laws, condition of insecurity and rights abuses, etc. cut media’s authority to speak truth to power and foster the civic culture of decency in both virtual and real world.
Public exposure to vital issues such as human rights, federalism, democracy, livelihood, elections, foreign policy issues, climate change, peace etc. awakens their interest in national politics and socialises passive citizens into the participant political culture of the nation. Similarly, total conformity to the opinion of readers, viewers and listeners with the purpose of pleasing them weakens the power of the public to critically examine the issues at hand. As a result, media socialisation has become cacophonous. Media persons must try to find a rational option over contesting ideas and find a common ground for the fair balance of interests of all Nepalis. This alone can contribute to public opinion and rational will-formation thus cultivating democratic functions essential for a civic culture. 

(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)