Media In Democratisation
Dev Raj Dahal
Media - print, audio, visual and internet - form a part of larger civil society entrusted with the duty to protect human rights, widen the domain of public sphere and contribute to public opinion and democratic will-formation. Awakening of Nepalis to their constitutional rights and ethics of legal duties and their socialisation are keys to consolidate constitutional state capable of achieving governance goals. Nepali media have served vital tasks in democratic innovation and diffusion of its principles and concepts crucial to fortify its institutional pillars, such as polity, political parties, civil society, election and the public and projected national identity to a wider world of nation-states.
One of the oldest media in Nepal such as Gorkhapatra and its sister publication The Rising Nepal have always exposed Nepalis to new ways of thinking to build this nation through the flow of educational contents and adoption of new attitudes needed for social modernisation and economic progress. The recent effort of Gorkahpatra to fuse and adjust to the needs of diverse Nepalis and increase outreach in the periphery have animated the links with major segments of society through their own dialects, cultures and geniuses. Transmitting news, views and opinions across many divides is essential for democratic consciousness of citizens and revival of the public from the mass.
Proliferation of private media and online newspapers with diffused orientations and interest areas has widened the scope of communicative space for the voice and visibility of many groups of society, pooled new loyalties and indulged in competition for public attention. It is helping to maintain a balance between universal spirit of democracy and cultural relativism of Nepali nation. Many journalists imbued with virtuous ethics have fostered democratic spirit even at the risk of their life and liberty. Some are burdened by the source of funding and lack common Nepali sentiment. They are less articulator of public interests while others are more to side of democratic aspirations than constitutionalism.
An enduring moral question of democracy is that it entails healthy and free press to cultivate democratically worthy citizens for freedom of press is fused with social accountability. The normative values of Nepali democracy such as popular sovereignty, social inclusion and negative and positive rights supply creative spirit to politics so central to defend public interests. It enables the nation fit for the world culture. In Nepal, the public functions of media, however, rest on their own framework of ownership, finance, autonomy, control, regulation, transparency and accountability. Their context-sensitivity enables to rationally shape cognition, feeling, emotion and judgment about the state of Nepali democracy and foster legal-rational norms for leaders’ behaviour.
As a champion of freedom Nepali media have provided civic awareness to citizens about changing nature of politics, equipped them with participatory information, stimulated active engagement and fostered meaningful dialogues. But in no way they are instrumental in providing ownership on public policies which are mostly fabricated outside the nation. Familiarisation of citizens with various themes hones their inner vigilance enabling to judge the rationality of democratic politics and exercise choice in public affairs. Nepali state can implement Right to Information Act, Working Journalists Act and the Constitution if it holds legitimate monopoly on power to create public order and clip the connectors of Nepali society.
But the protection of journalists’ rights, laws, social security, professional dignity and solidarity are allied with the autonomy and capacity of the polity to tolerate independent role of the court, watchdog agencies and the attentive public. It enables media to serve as a lively link between the input and output functions of democracy which makes the interactive political sphere resilient. Solidarity of media associations helps to beat the abuse of their members, enforce labour act and security deficit caused by attack politics. Fragmentation of it along partisan lines stifles the public sphere and their own efficacy. Mediatisation of public sphere has enabled Nepali leaders to communicate more with journalists than among themselves and to the life of citizens.
Media Strategies for Democratisation: Critical information is power and its effective utilisation helps to free Nepalis from the fetters and tutelages and realisation of their 31 constitutional rights and four duties. Civic competence of Nepalis to shape preference rests on basic knowledge and access to the flow of information to the entire web of national life. The direct language media use for communication of the messages can socialise citizens on public issues, provide them autonomous power to deliberate and act without any fear of power constraint. The manifest performances of media on democratisation are:
First, detonation of critical debates in Nepal has birthed a deliberative public essential to keep the dynamic of political life. Informed public opinion depends on critical social dialogues about the conditions of Nepalis, women’s issues, social evils, human trafficking, reform in social legislation, health and safety of poor, etc. Elimination of structural injustice can create a level playing field for all. Nepali media thus need to debate about impersonal roles of the state and public institutions, political parties, market and civil society taking into account long-term perspectives of all sides on the political process beyond project setup. This is central to reflect the plurality of opinions and diversity of views and stimulate creative participation of the public in the attainment of common good.
Second, the public sphere of media is ideally regarded autonomous of various interest groups so that every Nepali can share this sphere equally and exercise their right to know ensuring decisions on public affairs transparent. Pluralist character of Nepali media has enabled citizens to shape their political choices and pass valid judgment. By using reflective imagination and deliberation with ordinary citizens they can bridge the gap between their concepts and citizens’ world views and engage them in revealing the social truth above the cacophonous noise. A responsible media culture can reform many irrational codes of society and create rational ground to step up social change.
Third, Nepali media continue to activate the passive spectators into active citizens. To be engaged in public affairs means actively express political, legal and policy issues on media platforms creating a stake of every Nepali in democracy. One vital democratic role of media is civic education-- training of Nepalis into the life of citizenship and human rights, respect for others’ legitimate views and work for the improvement of government and public institutions. Democratisation helps to broaden their horizon, moderate the views of many identities- caste, class, gender, ethnicity, religions and regions and transform them into an equal citizen of Nepal. Those with partisan prejudice do not generate true consciousness. Instead they indoctrinate, engineer consent, inflate the image of leaders or indulge in disinformation. They are problematic in terms of attaching the trust and loyalty of citizens to democracy.
Fourth, Nepali media have functioned as generators of public trust, reconciliation and peace. The worst affected citizens by direct violence, disruption and structural injustice are poor Nepalis though tax and remittance they contribute to keep the nation’s vital economic life going. In a post-conflict nation, like Nepal, media have to pro-actively engage in reformist agenda, shape common backdrop order for a common ground for the resolution of constitutional issues such as type of polity, federalism, governance, judiciary, election, citizenship and democratic dividends. It defines media profession as a normative public craft to expand civic space to capture the soul of democratic values and norms. Resilient functions of media in Nepal rest on non-violent communication and nurturing of bonding and bridging social capital for deepening democracy.
Fifth, bulk of public interest media in Nepal has served to liberate citizens from alien-thought control, feudalism and corporate interest. Democratic politics is not only about the leadership selection for power but also about promoting common good where even ordinary citizens are beneficiary. The robustness of Nepali democracy rests on an easy flow of feedback between the leaders and citizens and revitalisation of public life. Media should release democracy’s capacity for social, economic and political integration of society, strengthen national integrity system to control social evils, corruption and impunity control of which make surplus for social investments for livelihood security.
Sixth, public function of Nepali media is to build civic competence of citizens to adapt to ecological, economic and technological change. Information and education provide means for nurturing citizens’ life-long learning process with the flow of changes. In this sense, the contents of civic education should be practical in nature because it gives them a critical sense of inquiry in thinking, judgment and action. A democratic process also avoids the pitfall of exclusion and eternal agitation cursing Nepal. Civic space of media freedom is guaranteed in Nepal’s constitution. But it is law-based, not lawless and anarchic, which requires civic culture of media persons.
Nepali media have a long-standing promise to a civic culture, a culture that requires not only political equality but also an ability to solve their problems and contribute to social modernisation and democratisation. Fundamentalism, whether market, class, ethnic or religious, removes the common ground among the diverse Nepalis living together in the same space, stokes the spiral of mistrust, distorts communication and risks the nation’s relapse into pre-civilised form. The ability of media to inculcate knowledge about the optimisation of concerns of various actors can fortify democratic public life.
Nepalis should be given critical knowledge about changing the nature of ecology, technology, economy and life-choices. Only then, democracy can foster peace through every one’s stake in it and instils a sense of justice. Injustice, alienation and invisibility mark the decline of democracy and an atrophy of media’s public functions to make democracy for everyone by reaching to even the passive, poor, isolated and alienated ones and engaging in civic action. By providing critical information responsible press nurtures an informed society capable of making vital choices in the public affairs and contributes towards participatory democracy.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Dahal writes on political and social issues)