Tide Of Times Focus On Informed Citizenry
In the Republic, Plato emphasises, “Injustice creates divisions, hatreds and fighting, and justice imparts harmony and friendship.” The great Greek philosopher’s statement is as relevant today as it was in the 4th century BC. As far as the general public is concerned, the State is equated with the political system and governance in operation. In a democracy, governance entails accountability, transparency and active public participation to the largest extent possible.
And news media are a regular diet for the general public. Journalism is the art of doubting and pursuing facts and pressing questions. The media need to connect with the target audiences. But politics puts stamp on news media through party activists doubling also as journalists. Manufacturing conflicts and crises that are aggravated by vicious rumours, slugged as “news”, become pollutants. Today, freedom of expression is widely considered as an essential element of a democracy, but with restraints in effect by most societies.
In Jerusalem on December 14, skirt-wearing staffers of the Israeli parliament protested at the building’s entrance after a number of staffers were denied entry because their dresses were considered “too short” by the scrutiny team. In several European countries, it is punishable to deny the Holocaust. In Britain, the defence ministry issues what is known as D-Notice, indicating that making public certain information would be detrimental to the security interests of the country, and the British press has invariably complied with the cautionary note. Israel has a more stringent regulation for the press on such matters.
Since government has the potential to generate massive volumes of information, how the information is disseminated is of critical importance. The following recent stories in the news media give an idea of how information is disseminated by important branches of the government in Nepal:
- President Bhandari’s media expert was quoted by Rajdhani daily in its January 6 issue on what transpired during the talks at Shital Niwas where leaders of major parties were present—Nepali Congress, CPN (Maoist Centre), UML and RPP.
- President Bidya Devi Bhandari’s personal under-secretary on November 29 briefed a reporter of Gorkhapatra on “discussion with top leaders of three [political] parties”.
- Vice-President Nanda Bahadur Pun’s press coordinator on December 17 briefed journalists on as issue over a Chinese travel company in Chengdu having promised potential clients for its Nepal package a meeting with Vice President Pun.
- Prime Minister Dahal’s foreign affairs advisor on December 19 briefed the press on the visiting Chinese politburo member of the Communist Party of China and head of the party’s publicity department’s head, Liu Qibao’s meeting with the premier.
- House Speaker Gharti Magar’s media advisor on December 24 briefed the press on his boss’s bid to organise a 7-party meet aimed at ending the on-going long deadlock created by the main opposition party’s obstruction of the House proceedings.
- Deputy Prime Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara’s press advisor briefed journalists on December 18 about the new Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Yu Hong’s courtesy call on the deputy premier.
- Foreign Minister Prakash Sharan Mahat, in November, defended Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba by denying that the former premier had not met with the head of the Tibetan government-in-exile Lobsang Sangay at a conference in Goa, India.
The question is: What are the spokespersons and assistant spokespersons in the institutions concerned doing? Surely, they should not be hibernating. Time permitting institutional heads announcing or clarifying something is welcome but, in their absence, the official spokespersons would be the proper channel to disseminate information for, at least, the sake of institutional memory being kept intact by jotting down notes and filing them for reference.
Gate-keeping in a democratic society is a challenging task, which essentially demands fairness in the entire filtering process as to what to cover, what to highlight and what to sideline or ignore altogether. On December 2, Speaker of the House Onsari Gharti Magar ordered expunged a certain derogatory phrase unflatteringly alluding to the prime minister’s health by a Marxist-Leninist leader. Three days later, a Rastriya Prajatantra Party lawmaker took strong exception to a UML lawmaker’s comment on alleged factors that contributed to the RPP-RPP/Nepal unification. The speaker instructed the Parliament Secretariat to revise the “abusive” words before keeping them into its records. Some news outlets carried the “unrecorded” portion it just the same.
More than a quarter of a century after Nepal became South Asia’s first country to constitutionally guarantee the right to information to its people, access to and dissemination of information remains much to be desired. For 17 years Nepalis had to console themselves with the mere fact that the Constitution guaranteed right to information while government after government failed to ensure the passage of any Right to Information Act. Even after the Act was at long last duly approved, there continues to be delay and debate as to “what” information to make public and which to withhold.
Advisors might be seen but are supposed to be very little heard in public. It is either their bosses or the spokespersons in the institutions they are hired for do the regular business of informing the press and the rest of the public. In The Decline of Diplomat, Vansitart, chief advisor to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (1937-40), reveals: “I saw Chamberlain only thrice in three years and never once alone.” This does not mean that the chief advisor was underworked; he would be expected to coordinate other advisors, monitor developments and peruse documents and what came in the public before sending periodic reports the eyes of the boss.
In Nepal, advisors to the president, vice-president, prime minister, speaker of the House, deputy prime ministers and ministers are a regular feature. This practice will probably be emulated by the provincial and lower unit governments as well when the federal structure stipulated by the Constitution assumes full form.
In India, information bureaus are set up all over the country for informing the public. Information officers are accountable for disseminating information, including preparation and distribution of press releases.
Regular press releases, press meets, efficiently updated websites at local, regional and national levels together with orientation sessions for civil society leaders, professional groups and the like are important targets for information flow. Radio, TV, newspapers and magazines, online news services, other information agencies, relevant institutions, concerned experts, scholars and the like should be on priority list for offering or obtaining information.
As not all mass media are news outlets, spokespersons should be on constant lookout to reach also non-news segments of the mass media or exclusively non-news channels for appropriate and effective dissemination. Timely effective press briefings, prompt information-worthy press releases, and fluency in delivery when informing journalists and responding to their and other information-seekers’ queries enhance an institution’s credibility and with it its reputation as an effective communicator. Dodging public queries frequently, issuing drab press releases and making little effort at gathering information on own institution’s and its units’ activities for sifting the newsworthy and disseminating the same to the press are self-inflicted constraints.
Necessary budget, orientation programmes (including at reputed institutions abroad and the required infrastructure/technical support are essential. Information officers and spokespersons should be posted at all public institutions in the districts also, as there are so many newspapers and 500 radio stations broadcasting news bulletins and airing development programs. But then this is pittance given the gigantic and yet essential task of catering to the public in being well-informed for drawing their independent conclusions and making decisions for action.