The quest for a conformist pressMedia entrepreneurs are happy to sing along the tune of triumphant political and economic masters.
The metropolis of Biratnagar languidly flows down south into the Indian mainland at the border town of Jogbani in the Araria district of Bihar. The descriptive phrase ‘no man’s land’, meaning an empty strip of territory that divides two opponent forces, is clearly inappropriate to depict the ‘dasgaja’ that marks the Indo-Nepal border and bustles with activity. The Eminent Persons’ Group that has reportedly suggested the regulation of the Indo-Nepal border has perhaps failed to appreciate that nothing short of a Berlin Wall, torn down in 1989, can succeed in separating the people that were divided by an arbitrary line drawn on a rudimentary map by the alien drafters of the Sugauli Treaty.
An unkempt Loknayak Jayprakash Narayan Gate welcomes shoppers from Nepal into Jogbani. The dasgaja is a crowded space here. An officer of Sashastra Seema Bal, an Indian paramilitary force in charge of guarding the border, admonishes a Nepali visitor with a stern warning that photographing the edifice is prohibited, but makes no effort to erase the picture. From roadside stalls to the fancy first-floor stores in Jogbani, all shopkeepers quote their prices and accept payment in Nepali rupees.
When Finance Minister Yuba Raj Khatiwada decided to impose duty upon the import of foreign books, he probably knew that very few Nepalis would come forward to criticise his whimsical step. Benefiting from the remittance economy, the neo-literate middle class of the country has jumped straight from dog-eared Shree Swasthani Brata Katha volumes to ebook consumers that scan fashionable titles without paying adequate attention to their contents.
In contrast to the bustling market of Jogbani, the Rani bazaar on the Nepali side of the border wears a forlorn look. The infrastructure of the historic Biratnagar Jute Mill is falling down. The local branch of Nepal Bank doesn’t have an ATM on its premises. Rastriya Banijya Bank boasts one, but the cash dispenser has clearly been out of operation for quite a while. The Integrated Check Post a few kilometres away from the customs point was jointly inaugurated by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and his Indian counterpart through a video conference. Its utility, however, depends upon the vitality of industrial activity in the vicinity.
In the knowledge economy, growth is dependent upon the quantity, quality and accessibility of information which then fuels innovation. It’s a widely held belief that creativity can’t realistically be taught. However, the evidence that it can be nurtured is equally strong. Freedom is the fundamental condition for the flowering of innovation. Perhaps that’s the reason unfree societies lack the imagination to lead and have to rely upon copycat attempts to unleash economic growth and social progress.
The concept of ignorance economy is less well developed. Perhaps the idea has its saving graces. The unaware can learn a lot even in the process of reinventing the wheel, which many Nepali innovators love to do. The ignorance that the ruling class, however, wants to cultivate is based on the belief that to be unaware of unpleasant facts or situation leads to a cheerfully optimistic state in the populace.
The sages rightly declared that to know is to suffer; and if ignorance is bliss, knowledge is clearly misery. Perhaps authoritarian governments don’t want their people to suffer. Ergo, they don’t want them to know and desire a press that purveys pleasure. That is exactly what ethnonational Supremo Sharma Oli seems to have had in mind when he decreed that the media must be loyal to the country and people. The Supremo wants the press ‘to create optimism and build confidence’. The sad part is that even some mediapersons and quite a few members of civil society seem to believe that the loyalty of the press should be to the ‘national interest’, which often stands for ethnonational interest, rather than to truth.
When some media persons decided to take an oath of loyalty to the party in power on the Baluwatar premises, questions were raised whether such operatives would be able to maintain accuracy, balance and credibility in the future. Valid as they may appear at first glance, such doubts are inherently superfluous.
Nepali journalists are self-professed nationalists almost to a person with few, if any, exceptions. The notion of nationalism is based upon the superiority of one’s language, culture and lifestyle over an easily identifiable ‘enemy nation’. Supremo Sharma Oli realised early on that the Nepali press was willing to carry the palanquin of any politician that swore to defend its ethnonational interests.
Allegiance to the ideology of ethnonationalism apart, even Marxism-Leninism isn’t too well known for fostering freedom of the press. Karl Marx famously asserted that the class that was the ruling material force of society was at the same time its ruling intellectual force. In that sense, the letter-head chairperson of the ruling party Pushpa Kamal Dahal is correct in his assessment that freedom of the press is a bourgeois concept.
In addition to ideology, the structure of the media too isn’t very favourable for a free press. For most media owners, the press is a property that must provide adequate return on investment. That makes successful media entrepreneurs risk-averse. They are happy to sing along the tune of triumphant political and economic masters.
The predicaments of media practitioners are no less confounding. Unable to decide whether journalism is a vocation with a higher purpose or just a profession to build a career, many of them oscillate between idealism and realism with unpredictable regularity. If indeed it’s a profession, then the government has every right to regulate it, even with a licensing examination if necessary.
Then there are lucrative opportunities if one chucks away idealism. The highest ambition of quite a few journalists is to become the media advisor to the president or prime minister. Lower down the food chain, there are similar opportunities in ministerial secretariats, mayoral offices, business houses, INGOS, NGOS and even with operators of the extra-legal trade.
Supremo Sharma Oli knows the Nepali press too well not to laugh at their pretentions and demand a ‘responsible press’ as loyal as the ‘Godi Media’ of India which is yet to get a press conference with the chief executive of their country.
Conscientious mediapersons, however, need to remember that their responsibility begins and ends with what George Seldes (1890-1995), the famous American investigative journalist, press critic and editor called the duty 'to get the facts, and present them as truthfully as human frailty permits'. There is no paucity of purveyors of positivism in a nationalist society where the motto of ‘my nation bestest’ rules the roost.
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