In the western-style parliamentary democracy that Nepal has adopted, besides the three pillars of the state (the legislature, judiciary and the executive) there is also the media.
The ‘fourth estate’ has been ascribed a triple redundancy check-and-balance role on the powers of the other branches. Democracies in Europe and the Anglosphere had in general been upholding this function – until recently. Today, of course, the liberal values are being undermined in many of the very countries where they were installed after long struggles.
Elected demagogues do not have to resort to crude methods like curbing media freedoms or putting journalists in jail. The new trick of authoritarian-minded leaders is to hijack the media’s agenda-setting role by co-opting the press, arm-twisting publishers to appoint sympathetic editors, and exerting commercial pressure through advertising. In addition, they can also infiltrate social media with troll armies, fake accounts and targeted advertising.
Lockdown puts Nepal’s media in intensive care, Raju Baskota
Lockdown crackdown, Editorial
In Nepal, even before the coronavirus crisis hit, print circulation was already in freefall. Eyeballs were migrating to digital platforms, and advertisers were following, buying space on Facebook, Google or digital portals. The COVID-19 crisis has telescoped time, so that a transition to digital that might have taken another three years is hitting us as we speak.
The paradox is that while page views soared, income collapsed – especially in the past three months of lockdown. Having more readers has not translated into more revenue. Monetising online readership is media’s greatest opportunity — and greatest test.
As our overview shows, Nepal’s media companies are in deep trouble. Journalists have been laid off, many have not got salaries for months, those that still bring out hardcopy editions have trimmed pages and reduced print runs, printing companies have gone belly-up. Tv channels have cancelled talk shows, radio stations have cut broadcast hours.
Just when the media’s role was crucial as the country grappled with the fallout of the coronavirus lockdown, its voice has been muted by this crisis. The pre-pandemic downturn in the media sector is now exacerbated, so that the financial emergency is further undermining the political independence of the press. Future government rescue packages could come with strings attached, or commercial interests will be tempted to buy media at garage sale prices for future political clout.
The media is supposed to play an adversarial role in a democracy by holding power to account. It is supposed to be a watchdog, not a lapdog. Despite its internal troubles, Nepal’s media has been doing a commendable job covering the string of crises: the economic collapse due to the lockdown, the Lipu Lekh border dispute with India, scandals over medical procurement, the murder of Dalits, youth protests and the MCC.
Gagging the press in installments, Sewa Bhattarai
It has been a busy time as reporters provide a blow-by-blow account of the power struggle in the ruling Nepal Communist Party between Prime Minister K P Oli and Co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Interestingly, the adversarial role in Nepal’s democracy is being played not so much by the mainstream press, but by a rival faction in the ruling party – with the press often playing second fiddle.
Democracy and press freedom are two sides of the same coin. Undermining one weakens the other. At a time when the media’s role needs to be even stronger in shining the light on the dark corners of the corridors of power, it is being systematically targeted.
Since coming to power in early 2018, the Oli administration has been trying to muzzle the mass media, curb the freedom of expression on social media, and arbitrarily jail people for vlogs, satirical songs on YouTube and Facebook posts. It has tried to pass the Media Council Bill, the Information Technology Act, and revise the penal code to include harsh punishment to journalists deemed too independent.
As Kedar Bhakta Mathema, former Vice Chancellor of Tribhuvan University and civil society leader says in our report: “If the media is in crisis, democracy will be in crisis, the media shines the light on issues in the public interest and keeps the state on its toes, to preserve democracy, we need to protect the media.”
Read also: In a surveillance state, Editorial