Not all bad newsA genuinely independent media has never been more important for the future of Nepal
Dipak Bhattarai, James Deane & Kiran Bhandari
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 have also made remarkable contribution to the democratic transition of the country.
However, many working in the Nepali media—and many others who care about it—revealed intense concerns about the future of the media during research for BBC Media Action’s new policy briefing, Accountability, nation and society: the role of media in remaking Nepal. The research also highlighted just how important Nepal’s media are likely to be in shaping the character and success of the democratic destination of the nation.
Media and corruption
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?
According to most of the roughly 40 experts we spoke to, the media in Nepal is “not effective” at combating corruption. Indeed, it could be argued that Nepal refutes a long-held pillar of democratic theory and plenty of international evidence that a free media deters corruption. In regard to the media, the country is judged “partly free” by Freedom House (better than the 36 percent 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 are 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 have been unable to buck that trend. Since the economy is not 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 were 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 remain 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 away.
Nepal’s complex 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 regard to the negotiation of the new constitution and the related crisis in the Tarai, a region bordering India that has seen protests and tensions over the statute.
The media increasingly reflect—and sometimes drive—this strain of politics, although not all observers agree on this point. The Kathmandu-based media have been accused of failing to understand or reflect the perspectives, reality and diversity of Nepali people. 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—to ensure cleaner politics, to underpin an informed democratic society and to enable Nepalis 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.
The writers are affiliated with BBC Media Action