Towards Greater Independence
There were at least a couple of articles in the Special Friday Supplement of this newspaper, brought out to mark the 116th anniversary of the Gorkhapatra, that ultimately questioned whether government ownership of the media like the Gorkhapatra was ethically correct in a western-style democracy which Nepal has chosen. Government control of the mass media of any form in a western-style democracy is not the done thing, and the media run by government funding or directly by the government tend to lose credibility among the people, especially the educated mass.
Government funding of media
True, there are many countries in western democracy that run the media with direct or indirect government funding. The Voice of America, for instance, is said to be operated with funds from the US government, and this channel, radio and television, is not aired in the US itself but is directed to other countries, especially developing countries in Asia, Africa and South America.
And there is the UK government funding of the BBC, which now not only broadcasts radio and television news and programmes but also has a trust that is spread in some developing countries where various mass media programmes are organised.
There are many reasons as to why foreign governments should spend so much in “educating” those in the developing countries. Some developing countries do not permit the activities of some of these state-funded media to operate in their country, but some others do and so do some local media which allow their programmes to be aired for the much needed “fee”.
The purpose of such spending by foreign governments is quite clear; they want to educate (indoctrinate?) us all in their way of thinking. This at a time when there is so much controversy over matters and issues even like human rights. That not all countries have the same values and human rights, despite the acceptance by most countries, is an issue that is not free from controversy.
The western democracies want the entire world to function as they do and adopt their value system, and hence the official spending on the media. There was a big controversy sometime in the past when it was revealed that a Scandinavian country was funding a trust that brought out a magazine. In this case, was the western government helping the publication or helping the publication spread their way of thinking? But then there is nothing new about this as the communist system too tries to do the same, and some communist countries have been doing so. And so have some religion-based states.
But in our own country, influenced as we are by western concepts, the concept of independence of the media is something we all cherish and long for. And hence there is much logic on the need to ensure that an institution such as the Gorkhapatra Corporation becomes autonomous. The slant in the mass media can be easily detected by media experts, for not only the government-owned media but also those owned privately have their tilts and tend to favour one side or the other depending on the ownership. And this why there must be total autonomy for all mass media whether in the government or private sector. This means that editorial responsibility should rest solely with the editors and not publishers.
Unless the law has been changed in recent years, the publishers and editors were made equally responsible for editorial matters. If it has not changed so far, it needs to change so that editors can really assert their right in a legal manner and function in a manner which makes them really free. But this might be an idyllic ideal hard to materialise for no one, whether the government or the private investor, would want to lose control over such a potently effective weapon like the mass media.
The print, radio and television media today have to rely on advertisements for survival. This is especially true of the electronic media, and any writings or airings of items adverse to the big advertisers would mean doom to the concerned media. The editorial staff have to, therefore, finely balance their editorial policy, making sure that they will not be legally responsible for false claims in advertisements in the print or electronic media.
Having said this, the question of autonomy for some government-owned media houses, especially the Gorkhapatra Corporation, is of paramount importance. In this regard, I had led a delegation from the corporation when I was with the corporation to then Prime Minister K.P. Bhattarai. This was soon after the restoration of western-style democracy in the country in 1990.
I had urged the late Mr. K.P. Bhattarai to seriously take up the issue of granting total autonomy to the Gorkhapatra Corporation. He had assured me and our delegation that he would seriously take up the matter. But this did not happen as there was a change of government after the election, and the new G.P. Koirala government seemed to be indifferent to the idea of autonomy for the corporation. And during this period, there was even talk of the corporation being handed over to the private sector for a price.
No alternative to autonomy
The Gorkhapatra Corporation’s publications, especially the vernacular daily Gorkhapatra, still enjoy mass circulation and has an enviable distribution network, and autonomy with proper personnel at the helm can not only win back credibility among the people but also make the corporation self-sufficient, which will ensure that, even without financial or other support from the government, the corporation will not only survive but also run in profit. And in the long run, there is no alternative to autonomy, and sooner this fact dawns on the government, the better it will be for all.