Political cloud over media: how detrimental to press freedom?

Published On: August 26, 2017 05:48 PM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

KATHMANDU: "Citizens need facts, not fake news and propaganda. Most of all they need reliable media working in a transparent and ethical way to give them the information they need to make a democracy work." This is a famous quote from Aidan White, Director of the Ethical Journalism Network. 

And Mr White's view is worth mulling at the backdrop of a debate that has kicked off on press freedom as the umbrella organization of Nepali journalists-Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) - held its 25th general convention to elect a new leadership recently. Before delving into the relevance of his view, scanning some comments about FNJ's convention looks equally relevant. 
Political analyst and senior journalist, Purushottam Dahal, while writing about FNJ election in the Nagarik daily, put it: "Those advocating for professional freedom, without bearing a tag of political party, have been vanished from the scene. They are no longer counted as journalists." 

Similarly, another columnist Krishna Murari Bhandary writes in the Annapurna Post daily, "The income of a dignified journalist is like a quilt of winter season, which hardly covers the body. When you try to cover the feet, your face is bare, and when you try to cover your face, your feet are bare." 

The latter two observations on Nepali journalism/journalists are probably the harshest comments as of late. So, how gross interference the politics has on the media, thereby ruining its professionalism! 

As they argued, have those who advocate for media/press freedom by shedding off the tag of becoming political cadres, or the member of the sister organizations of political parties, really vanished from the scene? Or are they just ignored for they don't belong to a fold of any political party? Is reality as biting as they said? And, don't Nepali journalists get good salary to manage their family needs? 

Needless to say, as the Director of the Ethical Journalism Network, Mr White said, media is the cornerstone of democracy, and without free and fair role of media, democracy does not deliver to its citizens. But, the general convention of the FNJ held recently has given an explicit message that journalists are vertically divided to the political parties they are faithful to. The alliance of the Press Union, sister organization of the ruling Nepali Congress, and the Press Centre, the sister organization of the ruling CPN (Maoist-Centre), came up with a sweeping victory in the election, while Press Chautari, the sister organization of the major opposition, CPN-UML, saw a fiasco. 

Voters in the premises of the general convention of the FNJ were asked to identify which group they belonged to rather than how professionally they have worked and for how long, and whether they have had any intimidations in their career. Which media they belong to, also became an irrelevant question. 

The most missing ones were the debate and discussion on rights of the journalists, their remuneration problems, ethics and values of journalism, and media contribution to democratic system during the two-day general convention. But, the political leaders attending the convention were saying politics would not interfere with free press/media freedom. 

Nevertheless, the alliance forged this time is not a new phenomenon. The earlier leadership had come from an alliance between the Press Chautari and Press Centre. It had also drawn flak then for the same reason. But, the political interference was more blatant this time. FNJ units of many media failed to select their candidates thereby resorting to concerned political leaders and parties to pick the election candidates. It was indeed like a game of installation of political acolytes to protect political alliance. 

As the central politics- the alliance in the government- is run with the consensus between the Nepali Congress and the CPN (Maoist-Centre), many have argued that the FNJ election is the reflection of the central politics, promoting their sister organizations. A doubt is there that it would further fuel politics of negation, now in the media sector as well. 

Of course, this does not mean every journalist in Nepal is not a professional, and that journalists should not have any political ideology. Every citizen is free to hold a political faith and ideology of his/her choice. But the concern is whether their ideology and faith remains detached while discharging their journalistic duties. 

At the same time, there is positive angle of analyses- as Nepali Congress has played a significant role to democratize the Maoist party bringing it to peaceful politics out from the jungle, the alliance of its sister organization, Press Union to Maoist's Press Centre would help further democratize Maoist acolytes, which would result in deepening of democracy. 

Similarly, both political parties and media are the pillars of a democracy. Free and fair role from both sides are imperative to improve the system. Nepal is undergoing transition in multiple fronts. Without reforming present politics, the new system may not bring meaningful change to Nepali citizens. At this point, the cooperation between the politics and media for the betterment of country people is laudable. But in the name of assisting politics, the fundamental freedom of press and journalists' rights must not be sacrificed. If media ignores political wrongdoings, there is the death of news and subsequent death of independent media. 

Coming back to Mr White media needs to work transparently. They must shun the business of propaganda. Hence, despite being elected from contradictory political faiths, the FNJ elected ones must act fairly and guide all of its members across the country to engage in fair, transparent, ethical and professional journalism. There must not be the smell of politics in any decision and activity of the journalists' representatives, otherwise, this organization would remain a puppet. Rather, the journalists must act bravely to correct the political maladies, which is better for the media and media persons themselves in the long-run. RSS 

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