Treat the press equallyDiscrimination between state and private media will harm democracy
The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology recently urged all government entities to prioritise state-owned media while distributing information and giving advertisements in order to support and help sustain government publications. The government rationale behind this is to make the state-owned media ‘professional, financially sustainable, self-reliable and competitive’.
In modern societies, the availability of information is of paramount importance to make decisions. Much of that information is provided by media outlets like radio stations, newspapers and television channels. These outlets collect information and make it available to the public. This then gives rise to a pertinent question: How should the media be organised? Should it be state-owned or privately owned? Should information pertaining to the government be broadcast only through state-owned media or through privately owned media too?
Radio Nepal, Gorkhapatra, Nepal Television and Rastriya Samachar Samiti are state-owned media houses. When the government decides to route advertisements only to the state media, it means the government is discriminating against the private media. Moreover, it is also reflective of the insecurity of the government since it fears the pervasive influence of the media.
As many media experts have rightly pointed out, the government cannot discriminate against the private media, nor can it intervene in matters of content or advertisements. Both public and private media should be of equal importance to the government, but it can always influence the state-owned media politically and financially. And that is dangerous, especially if democracy is our system of government.
It has been just one year since the new government was put in place with a thumping two-thirds majority, but to see it flex its muscles and tighten the rules and regulations for the media is unfortunate. The role of the print and electronic media in disseminating information and political messages to the public is critical. When the government decides that it can be done only through the state-owned media, and when it decides to be the speaker, it can very well be a censor too. As a result, the government can suppress information solely because of its content. What’s more, at times it can even manipulate information to entrench the incumbent government. It also precludes voters and consumers from making informed decisions. Thus, such acts will undermine democracy, press freedom and the market.
The issue here is not just prioritising the state-owned media while distributing information and giving advertisements. In a democratic setting, the government cannot prioritise one media over the other. Neither can it take such decisions unilaterally. For the government, the state-owned media and the privately owned media should be no different. In a democracy, the government does not assume the responsibility of running the press. Rather, it lets it run freely.