Author: Kiran Bhandari, Dipak Bhattarai and James Deane, October 10 2016 - Nepal’s media has played a pivotal role in the country’s democratic transition but how successful has it been at fighting corruption and boosting accountability?
Nepal has one of the most remarkable and extraordinary media landscapes in the world. In addition to a crowded and energetic mainstream media market, it has more community radio stations per head than any other country globally. Nepali media also has a remarkable legacy in contributing to the dramatic democratic transition of the last decade or so.
However, many in the media – and many others who care about it – revealed intense concern about its future during research for our new policy briefing, Accountability, nation and society: the role of media in remaking Nepal. The research also highlighted just how important Nepal’s media is likely to be in shaping the character and success of the democratic destination of the nation.
Briefing co-authors, Dipak Bhattarai and James Deane, discuss challenges facing Nepal’s media, key takeaways from their report and the international community’s role.
The briefing looked at two sets of questions. First, how effective is the media at exercising its role as a democratic ‘watchdog’, holding government to account and deterring corruption? And second, what is the media’s role in providing a democratic platform for public debate as Nepal goes through dramatic political and constitutional change, at the same time as it confronts great development and humanitarian challenges?
Is the media successfully fighting corruption and boosting accountability?
According to most of the roughly 40 experts we spoke to, the media is “not effective” at combating corruption. Indeed, it could be argued that Nepal disproves a long-held pillar of democratic theory and plenty of international evidence that a free media deters corruption. The country is judged “partly free” by Freedom House (better than the 36% of countries in the data set deemed “not free”), but is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world by Transparency International. Why is the media not better at making Nepal’s leaders more accountable to its citizens?
Most of those we spoke to felt that much of the media has itself become increasingly politicised and co-opted, both at the national and local level. Most institutions in Nepal are heavily politicised and the media has been unable to buck that trend. Since the economy isn’t strong enough to support an advertising base that can underpin a healthy independent media, it is increasingly vulnerable to political sponsorship and interference. Organisations like the Committee to Protect Journalists have also reported a worrying intensification of attacks on press freedom.
Crucially however, many felt the media was performing at least as well – if not better – than any other set of institutions tasked with combating corruption. According to public opinion research carried out by our organisation, the media remains more trusted than most other institutions. It is clear that if the independence of the Nepali media is compromised any further, and if it cannot find a way to sustain itself, a vital deterrent to corruption will wither.
Is the media serving all of Nepali society and facilitating political transition?
Concerns over the media’s role in holding government to account were perhaps to be expected. A less predictable concern was over the media’s capacity to hold the country together.
Nepal is going through a complex and challenging democratic transition. Politics is seen as increasingly identity-based and divisive, especially in regards to the negotiation of the new constitution and the related crisis in the Terai, a border region with India that has seen protests and tensions over the document.
The media increasingly reflects – and sometimes drives – this strain of politics, although not all observers agree on this point. The Kathmandu-based media has been accused of failing to understand or reflect the perspectives, reality and diversity of Nepal’s peoples. Some believe Nepal’s famously large network of community and commercial FM local radio stations – so long an internationally admired pillar of democratic strength in the country – too often stokes societal divisions and gets captured by political, business, ethnic or other factional interests. In contrast, others maintain that genuinely independent community radio still survives and has never been more important – or useful – as the country navigates a complex political transition.
We prepared the briefing to provide an international audience with a better understanding of the role of the media in Nepal’s complex transition. We come away from this analysis convinced that a genuinely independent media has never been more important for the future of Nepal – for ensuring cleaner politics, for underpinning an informed democratic society and in enabling the people of Nepal to debate and shape a nation that is reimagining itself. But it needs to be treasured and supported both by Nepalis and by the international community.
Kiran Bhandari is Senior Producer and Dipak Bhattarai is Editor of Sajha Sawal (Common Questions), a weekly debate programme broadcast across Nepal on radio and TV. James Deane is Director of Policy and Learning at BBC Media Action. Kiran tweets as @kiranbhandari9, Dipak as @dipakbhattarai and James as @JamesMDeane.
A version of this article was published in The Kathmandu Post as an op-ed.
Image credit: BBC Media Action
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