The concluding sentence of Power Without Responsibility: The press, broadcasting, and new media in Britain, a seminal work by James Curran and Jean Seaton, seems to be a utopia in the present chaotic world of media. In the book first produced in the 1980s and then updated in the new millennium, the duo hopes that we can build a better media system that combines power with the responsibility to people. They attempt to pursue an idea to enable the media to perform functions like informing, discussing, mirroring, binding, campaigning, challenging, entertaining and judging in a free society. To translate the noble idea into practice, a society requires the mass media primarily powered by their independent and responsible functioning. As in the global context, for about a decade, online news portals are exponentially proliferating in Nepal. Press Council Nepal (PCN) states that as many as 2,664 online news portals are operating in the country to make the general public informed at least in principle. However, in practice, journalists working in these news portals are yet to realise their critical role in the democratic polity and society. It is believed that the free internet and its offspring such as news portals enable a society in promoting freedom of speech. The value of free speech has been evaluated greatly in a democratic society, as it produces informed voters.
Freedom of speech According to Alexander Meiklejohn, a 20th century US philosopher, the function of liberty of speech and the press is to enable the most inclusive and therefore best public deliberation. He believes that freedom of speech is a precondition to facilitate self-government. That is why Meiklejohn elevates freedom of speech above almost all other rights as the foundation or most essential condition of the democratic process. In a democracy, social readjustment is sought through informed consent rather than coercion. However, to maintain the spirit, the mass media institutions need to be responsible to present informed choice to create informed consent. The general argument for freedom of speech is that it enables and allows people to arrive at a clear and lively understanding of truths about the world. In the absence of democratic culture, the silencing of expression prevents people from arriving at a clear and lively understanding of true beliefs about the world. Similarly, a sound argument for freedom of speech is that citizens need to make informed choices in public affairs. The Nepali news portals, the dominant form of mass media today, need to internalise that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. Recently, the PCN issued objection to the news published by some news portals. The so-called news was based on a fabricated piece presented as an unofficial translation of an imagined understanding between Nepal's PM and an Indian intelligence official. It concluded that the news is driven by rumour and undermines the sovereignty, territorial integrity and relations with the friendly nations. Citing Journalist Code of Conduct, 2016, the Council issued letters to those online news portals seeking clarification within 24 hours. Consequently, seven news portals namely, Ujyalo Network, Samachar Dainik, Nepali Gatha, Pardaphas, PLA Khabar, Kantipath and Sudarshan Khabar apologised publicly. They replied to the Council expressing a commitment to abiding by the journalist's code of ethics in the future. The Council has announced that it will be tracking the error rate of those news portals and will organise the compulsory orientation for the violators of the code of media ethics. Now the journalists of these news portals could not correct their blunder but they can take a lesson from this incident to improve their practice in the days to come. The PCN should make them oblige to the professional ethics and understand that news needs to be reliable and dependable for the general public. There are at least seven immediate tasks before the Nepali media in general and online news portals in particular. First, journalists can commit a mistake, but when they realise that they committed the mistake, they should internalise it and be promptly ready to rectify it. Second, the new portal journalists need to be clear about what exactly is false and true information as well as what is unfair treatment. Third, they are entitled to provide greater prominence to the correction. They should give the same prominence to the corrigendum to refute their controversial, unfair or untruth news. Fourth, as the goal of a correction is to communicate the correct information, they should help the truth to prevail. Most importantly, they need to understand that realisation of their mistakes enable them to earn the trust of public. Fifth, they should search and verify the piece of information before publishing it in their respective media outlets. They need to follow professional procedures to separate facts from rumours. For an ignorant journalist, it could be so easy to claim erroneous and false statement in the name of information. But a strong editorial system and a capable editor can effectively save the media institutions from being propaganda machines. That is why a good journalist requires being diligent in verifying facts before publication. Sixth, a good journalist never takes blind dictations from any power centre. In some cases, a source of news could be off the record or a source could be anonymous. However, a journalist who is presenting that news in the public domain should be aware of the source and the fact of that news. Principally a journalist is entitled to protect the source under any circumstances. But that doesn’t mean the presenter act like a robot and editorial process as a transmission belt. A journalist needs to enable mental ability along with leg-man-ship, a capability to move here and there. Finally, seventh, never forget the basic traits of a journalist and just be a good professional and trained journalist.
Code of ethics Full adherence to the code of ethics is the only effective way to avoid errors in the media outlets. In the case of the violation of professional standards, the PCN should settle it to the satisfaction of both parties. Any coercive measures by the state agencies can jeopardise media freedom. The process of naming and shaming, like in the case of seven news portals, will certainly prove to be instrumental in this regard. Such an effort would make it possible to prevent such grave errors in future before they make their way into the world. A basic mantra for a journalist is to err is human, correct is the noble deed. A good journalist learns from errors and shows readiness to rectify errors in any circumstance.
(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)