Print Edition - 2017-09-10  |  Free the Words

For the common good

  • Nepal’s media is unable to reflect public interests, even though it should

Sep 10, 2017-

Germany underwent a radical transformation in a number of areas after the Second World War, and the field of mass media was no exception. Determined to prevent the use of mass media to spread propaganda, hate speech and mislead the people, Germany took a bold step by completely separating the state and media. This gave rise to the unique German media movement of Public Service Broadcasting.

Public Service Broadcasting is just that—radio, television and internet used with the intent of serving the public interest. Advertising is severely restricted and the main source of income is fees collected from every household at a cost of ¤17.50 per month.

Representing the whole

Like Germany, Nepal has also been through times when the state has had control of the media,  with censorship and threats to journalists. The state-owned media, Radio Nepal and Nepal Television (NTV), still have little to no editorial independence and are viewed by most Nepalis as the mouthpiece of the government. The private media, as in other places, is over-commercialised. The overall media scenario of the country is a rather gloomy one.

The question is, could the Nepali media, especially broadcasting, truly reflect public interest? Could there be a model solely dedicated to the advancement and betterment of public welfare, free of any state interference, and accountable to and inclusive of the minorities and marginalised voices and not just the majority?

Any hope of public service broadcasting in Nepal can only come from ‘public’ broadcasters Radio Nepal and NTV because the private media is unlikely to cater to any other interests aside from commercial ones. This is just an accepted fact and the situation is the same all over the world.

But what might surprise most Nepalis is that Radio Nepal is already technically a public service broadcaster (PSB) and it has been so since 1985, when it underwent an organisational transformation from a government funded and controlled media to a self-sustaining one operating under an independent board.

But the public service aspect of it can really be questioned, because it is not a hidden fact that its content is controlled by the government. It is the same story with NTV. What keeps both from being true PSBs is government interference—key positions such as the post of the Director General are politically appointed. A high-level task force in 2007 recommended that the government cede control over NTV, Radio Nepal and the state-owned Gorkhapatra newspaper and the National News Agency (RSS). These agencies should be turned into independent public broadcasters.

Dealing with problems

Progress has been slow, but there are steps being taken to merge Radio Nepal and NTV into a single entity. Also, Radio Nepal has already been classified as a PSB and so has some regulatory framework in place which can be extended to NTV as well after merging. There would not be a need to start from scratch. Another strong point in this regard is that both of these are self-sustaining in nature and thus can function independently from the government.

But this initial optimism fades away once you peek behind the curtain and delve deeper into the technicalities. The key features of any PSB are accountability to the people, element of public finance and regulation of advertising.

In terms of accountability, the media organisations so far discussed are accountable to the government and not the public. Often times, they act as blind supporters of government policy rather than the watchdogs that public interest demands.

NTV and Radio Nepal have shown their public service potential after disasters like the 2015 earthquake, when they broadcast credible and verified information about damage and relief needs. They have also been independent during times of transitional governments, or ones led by technocrats like the 2013 pre-election interim government.

The lesson seems to be clear: remove government interference and the stations can be PSBs. Senior management appointments could be done by a committee which may include the government but also many other relevant experts, thus preventing monopoly of any one party or group. But herein lies the problem. Who could be defined as ‘relevant experts’?

Additionally, the media has to take everybody’s concerns into consideration regard. Public accountability is an extremely complex issue that will take time to address.

Another issue concerns the element of public finance. The Germans pay a special fee as mentioned for their PSBs but the same arrangement cannot be replicated in Nepal, simply because such a fee would be too unpopular. Nepalis already get charged exorbitantly for even the most nominal of services like electricity, water. Adding fees for radio or TV would just be too much to bear for low-income Nepali households.

Also, people would simply not pay. Nepal’s tax mechanism is already wildly inefficient and allows many people to avoid payment of taxes very easily. How can it be ensured that the fees would be effectively enforced and efficiently collected? These fees could well become just another tax that people don’t pay.

And this leads to the third point. With no guarantee of public finance, advertising shouldn’t be restricted in any of these media because then they risk losing their self-sustainability and it may come to a point where they have to shut down. However, with advertising, they can’t function as true PSBs. This is the paradox.

Given this situation, it can be said that the feasibility of Nepal’s public media becoming public service media is minimal, at least for the near future.

- Mishra is currently doing a BA in media studies at Kathmandu University

Published: 10-09-2017 07:59

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