Cancer Of Media Concentration: P. Kharel
As far as the press in Nepal is concerned, floodgates opened soon after the restoration of multiparty system of governance in 1990. There was a remarkable spurt in the number of newspapers not just in Kathmandu but in the rest of the country as well. In contrast to the fact that there was hardly any regular daily newspaper outside Kathmandu on the eve of the big political change as against a dozen or so dailies published in the capital, the number of dailies brought out in the districts today is about five times that of the counterpart number in the country’s only metropolitan city.
Some people describe the presence of broadsheet newspapers brought out by the private sector as a mark of democracy—a naive remark no doubt. Broadsheets brought out by the private sector exist in many countries ruled by dictators, army generals or absolute monarchs in Asia, Africa and Latin America, including South Asia.
The Philippines, long before the 1985-86 People's Power movement ousted the Ferdinand Marcos rule, had hundreds of FM radio stations in operation. On the other hand, India, notwithstanding its pride in being the world’s most populous multiparty democracy, allowed private sector radio to operate only a decade and half ago—but without permission to air news bulletins the way they do in Nepal. For that matter, no other South Asian country allows full-fledged news bulletins on private radio.
With the exception of Nepal, radio news is a state monopoly in South Asia. In fact, the launch of the world’s most populous region’s first private radio service (Radio Sagarmatha) in 1997 put pressure on the rest of the region to allow private radio services to operate, focusing mainly on entertainment but specifically barring news bulletins. As for television channels, Nepal records an impressive development in terms of number, including those of news channels.
Quality is what marks the true worth of news outlets that abide by the basic principles of journalism. Arbitrariness, bias and political activism are not among the cardinal principles of journalism. Democracy suffers a serious setback if these elements dominate the larger community of media organisations and the contents they dish out.
Twenty-five years of multiparty democracy and nearly a decade of other sweeping political changes prod Nepali media critics to take due stock of the state of a sector that prides in arrogating itself the status of the fourth estate.
Retailing only items that do not clash with their commercial, ideological or exclusively personal interests underscores the height of professional deprivation. Chasing after circulation figures or mass audiences of the listenership and viewership to be sold to advertisers as so many pairs of ears and eyes, in what is known as ratings, denotes a dubious scheme of things. Debased by heavy cravings for advertising money that demands the practice of pandering to the lowest denominator of popular tastes, the news outlets’ primary focus becomes profit risking gross compromise of news contents.
The manner in which some of Nepal’s biggest financial scandals—Unity and VAT defaulters—in recent years were deliberately ignored or grossly under-reported with the barest of information points accusing fingers at the media. Much of the media shied away from covering the details of the businesses and bosses behind the sensational scandals whose scale and volume stand staggering. The size and reach of this tribe of organisations has grown to overwhelming proportions in Nepal. Profits supersede everything else. When money bags manage to land in elective posts at the highest precincts of representative power irrespective of their track records, it gives the message of a free for all.
Menace of manipulation
Partisan press corrupts public decisions, depriving the citizenry of the promised opportunity to be informed adequately for making their decisions. Party presence and influence in the media wells up the menace of media monopoly. The weight and burden of bias in and political activism by the press has numbing effects that threaten to reduce people to passivity or turn them into raging rebels in response to the stifling atmosphere of no proper access to their grievances.
When an elected government’s role is barely tolerated for running news media services on its own, why should the public give unremitting allowance to political parties by according professional and financial support through various routes to party-inspired publications? But the pervasive presence of political activism in and through the Nepali press continues unabated to the extent that a new form of media monopoly dominates the media scene, the like of which is absent in other democracies.
Monopoly of content choice and agendas to serve individual party interests is a cancer claiming various units of society, including the news media. It controls as to who and what to highlight when, where, why and how. The basis of control is not the mass audience but elements asserting political and/or commercial clout.
Joseph Goebbels, Germany’s minister during Nazi rule, advised: “The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly—it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over.” Or, more succinctly and most famously perhaps, Goebbels boasted that “if you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it”.
When the media push forth partisan agendas, they frequently create effects serving their narrow purpose. Uniformity in approach and voice, as if under the party spell of a political party whip to fall in line like unquestioning creatures, corrupts media power against the general public interest.
In the same vein, news media concentration is another pressing issue that is being accorded almost no attention, let alone action. Media concentration in Nepal does not fit the traditional definition springing from the experiences of Western democracies. Intricate indications and instructions in a message can eventually be an inspiring and illuminating stimulator for media academics as well.
Chain ownership is not an overt problem in the Nepali press. But its covert prevalence is cancerous. Numerous media are known to be directly guided by the decisions and directives of political parties. People in the know assess that 75 per cent of the near 400 radio stations in the country are dominated by local activists of political parties.
If media associations and watchdog organisations are infested with party activists, their credibility takes a nose-dive rock bottom. This is at least the case in other democracies. For a society, where political parties command dominance through their activists working as journalists, is deprived of a free flow of independent, and verified and fair dissemination of news and balanced views. If the party press becomes the dominant factor in media outlets and organisations, the farce is writ large in the functioning of the fourth estate.
The same is true if two or three radio networks in the Kathmandu Valley produce news and current affairs programmes that are broadcast on most of the 400 radio stations at least during prime time, which constitutes a form of concentration not heard of in other democracies—big or small, rich or poor. In other countries, their accounts, including profits, would be closely audited.
Media concentration limits effective choice for the public. Such lack of adequate access stifles many voices, rendering the choices of merely multiple channels as cosmetic. Whatever the number of channels in a society, the choice for the audiences becomes extremely limited if the media are orchestrated to chorus the same words, pauses, emphases and notations under a single umbrella.