Media Council as conscience builder

Published On: February 20, 2020 09:47 AM NPT By: Mohan Nepali

Some new provisions should be added to Media Council Bill to award most ethical and high performing journalists and media houses, while publicly shaming and taming unethical practices

All communication scholars across the globe unanimously agree that human beings cannot NOT communicate. Even silence is strong communication among them. Biologically, communication mechanism lies within us. Mentally, intra-psychological communication incessantly occurs within us. Socially, communication is an essential process of co-existential relations and mutual transactions. 

Free flow of communication is as important as the smooth blood circulatory system for a democratic society to advance from multidimensional perspectives. Based on this experiential human perspective, a media council concept seeking to provide wise and ethical guidance to media sector is relevant. This is why the press council concept evolved over the decades. Wherever press councils or agencies with different names meant for the same function exist, they have not been a prosecuting force. They work as a mechanism for ethical guidance rather than as a prosecuting force.  Nepal has been following this stance since the end of the party-less Panchayat system in 1990.

Following intensive moral pressures and political lobbying from stakeholders to democratically modify the Media Council Bill, the National Assembly has passed it by removing the most opposed provision of punishing journalists with a fine of up to one million rupees. The fine was proposed against any possible journalistic content that might be considered defamatory against ruling elites.  A newly added licensing provision as an indirect method to debilitate media freedom was also scrapped by the National Assembly. This is a welcome step. However, the position of the House of Representatives is yet to be observed.

It is logical to question the government’s commitment to the Fourth Estate and its autonomy because it long remained adamant in its belief system of controlling media work. Equally, the government’s intention behind its controlling idea is worth analyzing for the sake of promoting participatory democracy as a people’s system of comprehensive and inclusive representation.  

Public interest journalistic angles often try to reveal bigger financial scandals as they seriously degrade public life, maximizing the social sense of insecurity, suppression and depression. In the process of disseminating inquiry-worthy information and clues for official investigation, journalistic contents at times might appear unfavorable to bigwigs and their cronies. Although the initial efforts to legally nominalize the Fourth Estate have appeared frail, it appears quite essential for all journalism-linked stakeholders, especially media scholars and republican advocates, to ever remain vigilant over other possible subtle exercises to convert the Fourth Estate into a higgledy-piggledy commodity market. To prevent the vociferousness of journalism, subtle efforts might be underway. 

Making amends 
A good and independent Media Council structure is essential to substantially implement the spirit of media freedom and freedom of opinion and expression enshrined in the preamble of the constitution. Such a structure could comprise capable representatives from academic, professional, legal and civil society sectors. It would be wise to include those with expertise in media freedom, right to information, human rights, and media accountability systems. The government-handled structure is likely to reduce the degree of separation between media and government, undermining the concept of the Fourth Estate and the separation of powers. 

As an integral component of democracy, media have no other option except to carry out their responsibilities in the most ethical, meritorious and independent manner within the constitutional and legal demarcations envisioned for them. The preamble of the Nepali constitution is adequately explicit about media freedom as an indispensable element of the Fourth Estate, with the spirit of separation of powers and checks and balances. Not glossing over this fundamental truth is important today as media stakeholders severely objected to harsh penalties as well as licensing provisions, both of which have now been scrapped by the National Assembly. Despite numerous tangible and intangible shortcomings of Nepali journalism, the three-decade experience can clearly verify the essentiality of the autonomous Fourth Estate because it has been the only socio-moral force that plays a public shaming role against corrupt forces. 

It is incontrovertible that journalists must be responsible to society and work in accordance with their self-regulatory ethical code. Journalists being citizens, they are equally subordinate to all the laws of the nation. If journalists violate the laws regarding the nation’s sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and social harmony, they will have to face legal actions like any other citizens in the country. 

What journalists need is more guidance, empowerment and encouragement to utilize media freedom to do and become better. Ethical and wise guidance matters the most for promoting quality journalism.  In this particular context, Nepal’s media stakeholders must in no way let their commitment to freedom of opinion and expression vacillate. They need to be adequately prepared and be pro-active toward safeguarding the universally acclaimed natural right to freedom of expression, an essential tool for all human beings, including journalists and ordinary voters. In a peaceful democracy, this right must never be underestimated.

Freedom and morality  
Moreover, it is indubitable that democracy becomes a wish-tool of the privileged few if only dominant and status-quoist patterns of behavior are favored in media contents. Democracy can function in a logical and remedial manner when critical views based on citizens’ original experiences are adequately exposed and analyzed for enriching policy input. Democratic thinkers across the globe almost unanimously agree that less media freedom cannot be better than more media freedom in a thriving democracy. But media stakeholders must, as a natural condition, adhere to the pivotal principles of highly prioritized public wellbeing and ethical practices. A greater right means a greater responsibility as well. 

Independent journalism is essential for all—rightists, leftists and centrists. Few individuals would prove utterly wrong should they attempt to make journalism more accountable to authorities and partisan interests than to people. Care should also be given to the possibility that the ideal of free media may sound very utopian if market pressures overwhelmingly override media freedom. 

Indeed, quality journalism is possible only through the moral and mental development of journalists. It’s something deeply concerned with journalistic capacity building. Stress must be laid on developing journalists’ insight and wisdom. 

In the wake of full-fledged republican democracy, the post-revolution constitution embraces media freedom in its preamble itself as an integral and natural component of the current political system. In line with this principle, it would be wise to have a media council as a center for independent monitoring and ethical dialogue for encouraging and promoting quality journalism through constructive and positive policies and programs. 

To do so, provisions to independently assess the performance of media and journalists, setting democratically measuring or rating quality criteria could be considered, while intending to discourage malpractices. It is advisable that some new provisions be added to the Bill to lavishly award most ethical and high performing journalists and media houses, while publicly shaming and taming proven unethical practices. Such a provision, if added, is expected to create an atmosphere for healthy competition, shaking the very roots of unethical practices within the realm of journalism. 

The author is a freelance media researcher, with specialization in Mass Communication and Journalism

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