Print Edition - 2017-12-24  |  Free the Words

The need for a watchdog

  • The media needs to get its priorities right and report news that matters to the public

Dec 24, 2017-

The left alliance has a clear majority in the House of Representatives. The CPN-UML and the CPN (Maoist Centre) together also control almost 60 percent of the mayoral seats. This points to the emerging political reality of overwhelming control of the left alliance at all levels of government. The opposition in the federal parliament and provincial assemblies is going to be very weak. In some provinces, the domination of the left alliance is so total that it is going to like one-party rule. 

As far as Nepalis are concerned, the expected ‘strong government’ cannot in itself be a cause for concern. The main issue is not the numerical strength of the ruling coalition, but their conduct in the coming days. In fact, I would not worry too much as long as Nepal’s media get their priorities right. The important question is how the media positions itself vis-à-vis this emerging reality. The media will need to make two sets of changes if it is to act as a watchdog on behalf of Nepali citizens. One, it has to get its reporting priorities right. The media often claims to work as a watchdog by reporting on ‘public priorities’. However, the idea of ‘public priorities’ is very abstract and open to interpretation. One way to get that right is to understand it from the perspective of citizens’ lives.

I would name the following as the core issues of public priorities in order of importance: Breathable air (because we cannot live without air and because bad air kills, maims and diminishes the quality of life); quality of water (because without water we all will die and bad quality water is the source of major illnesses); access to food (without it we will die and its quality is the major cause of our suffering); violence against women (because it is a pervasive feature of our public and private lives and has diminished the quality of life of both women and men); safe and efficient transportation (because it determines the quality of life for a vast majority of citizens); access to health care (because it determines the quality of life for all citizens); access to quality education (because it determines the quality of life of the present and future generations) and independent relations with our neighbours (because they are related to how our polity functions). 

Nepal’s media often fails to report on these issues. If Nepal’s media is to work as a watchdog on behalf of Nepali citizens, then the first thing it should do is to get its public priorities right. We need to see issues that are important to citizens as being ‘front-page’ matter, headlines and prime-time presentations. Indeed, these issues require complex deliberations, and that requires taking multiple viewpoints; but if we are genuinely concerned about the behaviour of those in power, there is no way but to ensure that power holders focus on issues that matter. 

Once these priorities emerge as the focus of Nepal’s media, the next important thing is to consistently report them with respect to the behaviour of those running our public institutions fearlessly. The core need is to ensure the accountability of our public 

institutions in relation to issues that matter to citizens. Indeed, it will be a mistake to assume that people in government are there only for bad reasons, even if most who have been in government have treated public institutions as their private fiefdoms. At the same time, constant vigil by the media is the only way to ensure that those who make decisions in these institutions suffer the consequences of their actions. Reporting on the conduct of those in power requires grit, perseverance and constant upgradation of the ability to ask intelligent questions. 

The public desires strong governing institutions in Nepal. Most citizens want a strong and accountable government. However, the vast majority of Nepali citizens do not have the power to ensure the accountability of those in power on a daily basis. Opposition politicians in the upcoming governing institutions are too feeble to keep tabs on the functioning of state institutions. The conduct of the media in the emerging political context can determine to a large extent how the ‘strong government’ conducts itself. The major risk is the continuation of business as usual in Nepal’s media, and the continued marginalisation of issues that matter to citizens. Even worse is the possibility of active collusion between those in power and those who run the media as an exchange of favours.

Bhattarai is based in Toronto, Canada and writes about politics

Published: 24-12-2017 08:02

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