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Media Situation and FES-supported Activities in Nepal - 2003



The months from February to August 2003 when a cease-fire prevailed between the government of Nepal and the Maoist rebels were a refreshing change for journalists to work in a more or less normal manner without maltreatment from either of the warring parties. But the situation after the breakdown of the talks in the last week of August has taken a disheartening turn. Although the situation is not as bad as it was during the state of emergency, two journalists were killed and at least 70 journalists are reported to have been subjected to detention/interrogation since September. Most of the journalists were released after a brief detention but the whereabouts of eight others are not known.

In the course of the army's operation against Maoist rebels in the last two years, ten journalists were killed and over 170 others were detained, interrogated and/or tortured. There was a storm of protest by media organisations, journalists' associations, human rights activists and international media institutions. Unlike during the state of emergency, security forces have not raided press installations and offices but a degree of fear, uncertainty and self-censorship continues.

Meanwhile, the number of news media-both print and broadcast-has recorded a sharp rise. The number of FM radio licences issued in the second half of the year has been dramatic. In the field of television services, too, there has been a remarkable development. The number of regular news publications has also been impressive.

Right to Information

The government made a public announcement in October that it was preparing a Right to Information Ordinance, which would be issued "soon". The Ordinance route is being mooted because of the dissolution of parliament last year on the recommendation of a democratically elected government and elections having been postponed due to Maoist insurgency and violence in many parts of the country.

The Constitution of Nepal 1990 protects freedom of speech and guarantees right to information. Previously, it was difficult to obtain licence for bringing out newspapers; editors/publishers used to be arrested for printing views critical of the partyless Panchayat system; and printing presses, at times, were seized and publication licence cancelled for carrying politically "objectionable" material. As a result, the 1990 Constitution has guaranteed that newspaper licences will neither be cancelled nor publishing houses and their printing presses seized. There is now been a marked boom in the number of newspapers and magazines published in the country. But, in the absence of a Right to Information Act, public access to information is limited.

The Ministry of Information and Communication is solely and wholly responsible for issuing radio licences and also overseeing/administering the use of the air waves. But the criteria for issuing radio licences are considered not specific and transparent. Illiteracy being as high as 60 per cent and electricity supply servicing barely 20 per cent of the 24 million population, radio is considered the easiest means of mass communication in a country with very limited road and transport network accompanied by rampant poverty.

Radio/TV Services

The government owns and runs Radio Nepal and Nepal Television, which are national broadcasting services. It appoints the chairmen, general managers and board of directors of these services. However, there are television and radio stations run by private companies as well. About 20 private FM radio stations are currently on the air and 30 others have obtained licences to operate. Although South Asia's first private radio service, Radio Sagarmatha, was launched in Nepal in 1995, half of the 50 FM radio licences were issued in the second half of this year. About ten of the licences are for community radio services.

Likewise, there is a remarkable development in the television world, with a total of five services. Till last year, the state-run NTV (Nepal Television) was the only regular television channel operating from the country itself. Kantipur Television Network, Channel Nepal (with uplink facilities obtained from Nepal this year) and Image Metro Television-are private companies while NTV and Nepal Television Metro are government-owned services. Shangrila Channel and Everest News Television are expected to operate in a full-fledged manner in 2004. There is also Nepal 1 Channel, beamed from Delhi, neighbouring India's capital, and exclusively aimed at Nepali-speaking viewers.

In addition to the local broadcasting and cable services, Nepalese have access to many foreign channels, including the BBC, CNN and those from neighbouring India. Since electricity reaches barely 15 per cent of the people, television channels are generally confined to urban areas and radio is easily the most popular and accessible medium of mass communication. With the spurt in the number of FM radio stations, increasing number of people in the rural areas are having alternative radio services as well. Research studies on broadcasting channels, their structures, programmes, reach, revenue and the like are virtually absent.

Newspapers and Magazines

Freedom of speech and expression is guaranteed by the Constitution. According to the Press Council's annual report released this year, there are a total of 306 regular publications, 54 of them daily papers and 202 weeklies. This comes in sharp contrast to the number recorded last year when the Press Council reported 215 regular publications, including 40 dailies and 161 weeklies. Most weekly papers are partisan and serve either particular political parties or vested interest. The broadsheet dailies are considered relatively less partisan, some of which give diverse perspectives and cover different issues. But many other news publications are biased when it comes to political issues and the performance and policies of the parties they openly support.

Of the many media-related organisations and associations, about 15 of them can be considered more serious than the rest in competing for members and support for resources and attention for the cause they profess to champion. Some of them are closely associated with political parties.

Professionalism

According to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, there are about 4,000 practising journalists across the country. Many of them lack proper training. Diversification of news beats and issues, and lack of specialisation have affected the quality of the news media in general. Partisan characteristics of most media have also affected the principles of value-based journalism.

Press Council Structure & Code of Ethics

There are regular complaints from civil society and others that the existing laws against defamation are not comprehensive enough to protect individuals from unfair and biased journalism. Previously, the Press Council used to be statutorily headed by a judge but the related Act was changed more than a decade ago whereby the government can appoint anyone as the Council's head. As a result of renewed call for reverting to the previous practice, a former Supreme Court justice was appointed December to head the Council. The existing code of ethics formulated by the Council does not cover broadcasting services. In the absence of a media council, there is no code of ethics for the broadcasting organisations.

Trend in Media Industry

A major development in the last decade is that the private media sector is increasingly making its presence felt. Government media no longer enjoy the extent of monopoly they did earlier. The state-owned media are increasingly losing their reach and influence because of competition from their counterparts in the private sector. The government has little or no influence on the private media but it controls the state-owned media with a firm grip. Questions are also being raised every now and then as to whether the government should own and run news media organisations.

Issues like foreign investment, ownership and media concentration are some of the issues that have come for discussion of late. Owners of Kantipur Publications not only control two of the country's largest daily papers, in Nepali and English, but also own the largest FM radio stations in Kathmandu Valley and eastern Nepal in addition to being a major share-holder in the Kantipur Television Network, the largest of its kind in the private sector. Other companies have not yet made keen attempts on such concentration of media but the field is quite open in the absence of any regulation checking such a trend. The government owns two of the largest broadsheet daily papers and controls the only two national radio and television services. It also owns the national news agency, whose chairman, general manager and board of directors are all appointed by the Ministry of Information and Communication.

FES-supported Media Activity

FES Nepal Office organised a total of 21 activities, most of them through nine different media-related organisations and a few by FES itself. The objectives of supporting the programmes included enhancing media coverage of issues pertaining to conflict management and strengthening media role in democratisation process. The efforts were geared to acquainting journalists representing different media-print and broadcasting-with major issues, including conflict, peace, democracy and the role of media in reducing and managing conflict on the one hand and, on the other, in contributing to promotion of social harmony based democracy, democratic institutions and democratic practices.

FES organised three activities, including one under a regional project on workshop concerned with peace and diversity journalism. The partners for the rest of the media activities were Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), Federation of Editors and Publishers of Nepal (FEPN), Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Tribhuvan University (DJMC), The Telegraph, International Press Institute/Nepal National Committee (IPI Nepal), Sancharika Samuha/Nepal (SAS/N or Women Communicators Group of Nepal), Editors Society of Nepal, Nepal Press Union (NPU) and Press Chautari (PC).

Major Highlights

Some of the major highlights of the media activities were:

  • Prime Minister, Ministers, top-notch political party leaders, Speaker of House of Representatives, leading newspaper editors, broadcasting chiefs, human rights activists and university professors attended the activities either as key speakers or as participants.
  • FES is at the forefront among INGOs operating in Nepal as far as bringing into discussion major media issues is concerned.
  • For the first time, planned efforts were made to ensure that women's participation increased and, as compared to the past, this was achieved to a notable extent. Special effort was made to enlist women as also resource persons-chairperson/paper writer/commentator in media-related activities.
  • Right to information, code of ethics, professional journalism, gender issues in the media and role of media in strengthening of democracy were among the key topics that in one way or the other figured in the course of the seminars/workshops/interaction programmes.
  • As a result of previous efforts and this year's programmes that FES supported, some of the partner organisations have undertaken follow-up programmes on their own without additional support from FES. FNJ and Press Council worked to revise and refine Code of Ethics. In the past, FES had supported FNJ to organise seminars on code of ethics. A group of very senior journalists.
  • As a direct outcome of media consultation programmes of FES, a group of very senior journalists got together and filled a long felt vacuum by establishing Nepal Press Club, which aims at providing a forum and meeting place for professional journalists. Prime Minister, ministers, foreign ambassadors, captains of Nepal's trade and industry, and representatives of most prominent media organisations attended the formal launching of the Club.

Activities in Brief

1. (a) With the cooperation of local media organisations, FES helped organise two workshops of one day each on "Role of District News Media for Good Governance" at Chitwan in Central Region (June 9) and Saptari in Eastern Region (August 26). There were 45 participants in the FNJ-assisted programme at Chitwan and about 30 at Dhanusha. The focus was on media role in diversity reporting; investigating corruption, misuse of office by public figures and institutions; and highlighting democratic rights, guarantee of security, concept of rule of law, transparency in budget allocation and people-participatory approach.

(b) FNJ organised two regional workshops of two days each on "Gender Issues and Participation in Media" at Butwal in Western Region (May 17-18) and Dharan in Eastern Region (August 3-4). There were over 60 participants in each workshop which included a balanced number of women resource persons who presented working papers or offered key comments. About half of the participants were women journalists, writers and social workers. The focus was on media coverage of gender-related issues and what could be done for enhanced media coverage of such issues and increased participation of women in the media.

2. FEPN organised two seminars of one day each on "Media and Constitutionalism" at Lalitpur in Kathmandu Valley (March 22) and Chitwan in Central Region (April 26). Role of political parties, the issues they raise or choose to ignore and the coverage media give or do not give to various issues were discussed. Each programme was attended by more than 50 participants.

3. (a) DJMC organised in Kathmandu (September 22) a workshop on "Current Media Issues" with special focus on strengthening of media practices in Nepal. Participated by more than 50 journalists, media educators and other communicators, the workshop dwelt on print and broadcast media practices, including newspaper circulation, radio/TV reach, commercialisation, public service media and professionalism. Emphasis was also placed on conflict reporting and security for journalists working in conflict-affected areas.

(b) DJMC was supported for organising a day-long seminar on "Community Radio and Information Sharing" at Butwal in Western Region (November 1), which drew about 40 participants. The growth and development of community radio services were discussed at length. The structure and functioning of community radio and the role and problems they faced were the topics that figured in the course of the interaction.

4. The Telegraph organised a day-long seminar on "Media, Development and Democracy" in Kathmandu (December 3). About 60 journalists and academics took part. The intelligentsia and the news media both came in for critical comments for having not done enough in raising major issues of national concern. The participants called for promoting better norms and values in the practice of politics and the functioning of the news media.

5. NPU organised a national conference on "Working Journalists' Act: Implementation and Sensitisation" in Kathmandu Valley on September 10. There were more than 60 participants. The participants lamented that the Working Journalists' Act had not been implemented even after seven years of its existence. They also called for putting pressure on government and media houses in refining and activating the provisions contained in the Act.

6. (a) PC organised a day-long seminar on "Foreign Investment in Media" at Lalitpur in Central Region (March 30). Lack of policy on foreign investment and the consequences of the same were the key theme of discussion. There were more than 50 participants.

(b) PC organised two workshops of two days each on "Media Commission on Promoting Professionalism". The first workshop was held at Biratnagar in Eastern Region (August 1-2) and the second in Kathmandu (November 2), each drawing over 60 participants. The main focus of discussion was the existing condition of media and the resultant need for the government to constitute a national media commission for addressing various media-related issues.

7. IPI Nepal organised a day-long national workshop on "Conflict Reporting" in Kathmandu (July 23). More than 60 participants from different parts of the country attended the programme, which dwelt upon press freedom and conflict reporting. Leading media organisations were represented at the programme.

8. SAS/N was supported in organising a series of five interaction programmes on "Media and Current Issues". While two were held in Kathmandu (March 2 and May 2), the remaining three took place at Hetauda in Central Region (June 28), Chitwan in Central Region (June 29) and Nepalgunj in Mid-Western Region (July 28). Each programme averaged 40 participants. The themes of these programmes included "Peace Process Agenda and the Role of Women", "Participation of Women in Media and Media Issues" and "Importance of Women's Role in Media."

9. (a) ESON organised a seminar on "Media Transparency" in Kathmandu on April 6, with focus on different aspects of media functioning. There were more than 50 participants from various media organisations. Foreign investment and advertisement also came up prominently during the discussion that called for substantive policy changes for a better environment in the media sector.

(b) ESON received support for a day-long seminar on "Conditions of Small Newspapers" at Illam in Eastern Region (April 6), in which about 40 participants contributed to the discussion. Competition, advertisement, problems of local media and government media policy constituted the main theme of the interaction.

10. (a) FES organised a series of four "Media Consultations", in which more than 150 persons took part and discussed a range of issues, including those related to radio, TV, print media, need for enhancing professionalism in the news media and introducing Right to Information Act. As a direct follow-up of these programmes, a group of very senior and prominent journalists has formed Nepal Press Club in Kathmandu where journalists can meet regularly and interact among themselves and also invite prominent personalities for informal conversation or for addressing the press on various issues of news value. Nepal Press Club is the only one of its kind functioning in the country. Prime Minister Surya Bahadur addressed the Club's first formal programme on December 15, which was attended by more than 90 prominent personalities, including newspaper editors, TV and radio chiefs, diplomats and leading business personalities.

(b) FES organised a four-day workshop on "Peace and Diversity Journalism" in Kathmandu Valley (November 4-7), with 16 participants, half of them women. A German expert was entrusted with the task of conducting the workshop, which also had four guest speakers. The response from the participants and their editors has been highly enthusiastic.

 
Copyright©2001. Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, Nepal Office
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