By Dev Raj Dahal
Nepali media have played important roles in political education, democratic movement and peace process through the resonance of sound, image and text. They had led a number of practical rescue missions when citizens were trapped by conflict and earthquake. The constitutional responsibility of the media to educate the public by providing it with credible news and well-founded views is the basis for their justification anddefense of democratic culture. Yet, the democratic ideals of freedom and equality, popular aspirations and constitutionalism, the right to information and the lack of “internal preconditions for media freedom” have become a source of persistent tension in the nation. In the context of democratization, the construction of a national ideology is important for leaders and the media to socialize citizens and transform their primordial affinity into loyalty to the Nepali state. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 has expanded labor, citizen and human rights of Nepalis and recognized their sovereignty. These rights, if implemented, have political consequences within social groups and the existing political order. In this context, the democratic function of the media is the key to move Nepal into a post-conflict and post-earthquake phase of reconciliation and resilient rebuilding. The means of media are considered a cultural industry engaged in the formation of a robust public sphere which can become a platform for informed debate, discussion and decision making.They are the standard of transparency of public affairs. Responsible communication is a key to manage social cleavages and a positive feature of democratic nation-building in many ways:
Monitoring of Cleavages: Nepal’s main cleavages are: geographic, income, gender, age, caste, class, religion, federalism, representation, interpretation and recognition. Many of the identity cleavages have already become proxies for social and political alienation, agitation and conflict. Society with multiple cleavages opts for a multi-party democracy and media pluralism. But excessive factionalism, fragmentation and proliferation of parties and their projection bythe media caneasily make political sphere cacophonous and feed political instability. In Nepal such a leaning has weakened the capacity of democracy to perform in the interest of the ordinary public and claimits stake in its institutions. Politics as an area of possibility and promise has unleashed many grievances of the peoplewhich are beyond the capacity of the Nepali state to fulfill. These unresolved grievances have opened social, economic and political cleavages prompting social forces to struggle for power, resource and identity. In this context, Nepali media need to act in three spheres.First, civic education and reporting and socialization of people into citizenship can contribute to build knowledge of what united the Nepali nation so far. This transforms the unequal identities of people into sovereign citizens with equal rights and equal responsibilities. Second, aggregation and articulation of the interests of citizens and transmission of those interests into politics, parliament and government can help them build a faith in democratic system.Democracy requires constant feedback between leaders and citizens which again is done through the means of media. And third, continuous reforms anda rationalization of society, economy and polity so that the individual, constitutional and human rights of citizens are well protected in a balanced manner. If born in mind, thesefactors help to reduce some social cleavages, minimize the potential for violence, spur social change and contribute to social peace.
Media as a multiplier of education:The democratic taskof the media is to contribute to public opinion and mediate the contending perspectives of individuals, groups, political parties and various institutions of Nepali society for the defense of public and national interests. The spread of education liberates society from blind faith and irrationality of violence. Optimization of interest, ideology and identity is essential as itis a process of modifying their ferocity and bringing all sides into a “middle ground” to seek a rational solution of social cleavages. Nepal is also facing tensions between traditional political culture as defined by the “binary format of politics”, played in a friend-and-foe style,and a new stratification of society propelled by information and knowledge revolution, where social groups are demanding their own group representation in power. This challenges the existing social integration potential of parties and opens possibilities for inclusionary transformation.
As a part of the global informational revolution, the Nepali media have contributed to the opening of theNepali society, but they are struggling to expandthe reach of institutional politics accordingly and questioning the imperfection of solution. This would require the 182 parties of various hues of Nepal tobe condensed into only 4-5 inclusive national parties. Only then the statecan coordinate governance actors and achieve both political stability and social and economic progress. A three percent threshold in elections and justice to the victims of muscular politics can contribute to conclude transitional politics. This requires Nepal to rediscover its national ideologyand transform people of diverse biological and social origins into Nepali citizens. It also helps parties to lower the cost of politics by fostering volunteerism and increasing the prospect for national and cosmopolitan identity. Protecting the sanctity of the political space of the state is essential for saving democracy from pre-political, non-political and anti-political forces. The role of the Nepali media lies in safeguarding the individual freedom of citizens so that they can prevent their subordination to subsidiary identity politics lacking national consciousness or commodifcation of citizens into free-floating labor.
Bridgeamong the coalitions of government, opposition and rebellious forces: The growing gap between the coalitions within government, opposition and rebellious forces, contradictions within the parties for leadership, governance and continuous agitation of certain sections of Madhesi, ethnic, and Tharus have posed challenges to the implementation of the constitution. Without bridging the gaps among them through the rational projection of news and views in the media, it willbe difficult for politics, law, policy and institutions to acquire the capacity for moderate success. Politicians talk more to media than among themselves and, therefore, they can help shape the rational articulation of views and find the middle ground for negotiation of their interests. In the absence of strong national political will, politics will be empty without any purpose and cannot mobilize the centripetal forces of society for the sake of social and national integration. Nepali media can monitor and prevent the deterioration of democratic norms, values and institutions so that politics can be back to its commanding height in assuming public responsibility and collective action.
Transformer of perspectives: A diverse society is a resilient society. Social cleavages in Nepal are not a problem in collective action if a public interest is crystallized and powerful actors find high costs in non-complying the code of the nation. The inability of the leadership to manage cleavages through democratic processes can reinforce them in a vicious way. Obviously, one can see how they have deconstructed the overlapping values and culture of tolerance that served as glue to social cohesion and peace in Nepal since ancient times. Media persons need to harness the rationalistic and positive values of Nepali societyand engage in the conflict zone by identifyingand reporting legitimate demands, providingsocial and political representation for them inthe news, grabbing the attention of decision makers and helping address the questions of national security and professional security of journalists endangered by non-state actors, powerful sections of society and media houses. This helps to address the problems of self-censorship, non-payment of salary, non-implementation of minimum wage and the risk of limiting media freedom in the country.
Mediation of legitimate grievances of those who have a stake in it:Every problem is capable of solution if it is formulated rationally, not in the partial interest of certain actors.It increases the resilience of people and society.A flow of informed opinions and news enables ordinary citizens to discover the choices and bridge their cleavages through compromise of legitimate interests. A nine-point declaration was made by women journalists that, among other things, included the implementation of the Working Journalist Act, enhancement of career prospects for women journalists, a 33percent representation of women in media houses, a 50 percent discount for medical treatment including a three-month maternity leave, and proportional representation of women journalists in the structure of media. Democratic autonomy of media, fairness in the news and views and faith in the power of reason can provide reasonable chance of success in bridging the cleavages.
Many of Nepal’s social cleavages can be resolved by a democratic framework of ecological, social, gender and intergenerational justice. The Nepali media should work closely with the ordinary citizens and save the nation from the crisis of instability created by conflicting socialization by mushrooming parties and the lack of national collective action. The rising power of discourses unleashed by the Nepali media has made them a powerful instrument of political communication, opinion-making, interest articulation and democratic will formation. It has transformed passive Nepali people into active and interacting citizens andcontributed to a belief in social progress and individual emancipation. Ironically, the explosion of multi-channel communication has also produced a multiverse of democracy, development and peace in Nepal.The bulk of media is afflicted by a loss of reflection ontrue reality of the nation, engaged in continuous imitation and competition among the media persons themselves and their media houses leaving major issues of the nation buildingteeter. These flaws need to be corrected through media ethics, the integrity of polity and mediation of the frame of news and views that are more fair and responsible to public and national interests.
(The author is the head of the FES office Nepal)
Media in the mediation of social cleavages
By Dev Raj Dahal