A look into Nepal’s media coverage
The tragic fate of 23 year-old Aubrey Socco who failed to return from a solo hike in the Langtang area of northern Nepal shook the media in April 2010. Aubrey was a typical American girl set out for an adventure in the Himalayas kingdom only to find herself robbed of her life while visiting Nepal. A breakthrough came to her case in 2013 when police arrested three suspects from the same region where she vanished. What was more interesting was that Paul and Aileen Sacco, her parents, received unreliable bits and pieces of the arrest from different news sources. The anguished father in his interview with CBS Denver in 2013 said, “We don’t know if our daughter is alive or if the report is correct. We are in a terrible position because many of the news stories that come out of Nepal are not accurate.” Although 3 arrests were made, the rest of the reports that appeared in Nepali papers regarding the suspect’s admission of the crime and recovered evidences of camera and clothing were found to be inaccurate. The US Embassy later confirmed that the reports about the suspects connected to Aubrey’s disappearance were prematurely leaked to the Nepal media and the arrests were still inconclusive.
For years, Nepali media has been hounded by accusations of replicating distorted images that are misleading and sometimes intentionally fabricated. Flaws in coverage have generally stemmed from lack of journalist’s vigilance to pursue the truth or manipulation of the news agency to sensationalize an issue beyond the legitimate information. We came to know from SagarmathaTelevision’s broadcasted news that the former King Gyanendra Shah vacated the Royal
Palace in May 28, 2008 after his monarchy rule was suspended during Nepal’s transition to interim republic. Another newspaper, Naya Patrika, reported the same story the next day but the reality was that Shah only departed the Narayanhiti Palace on June 11, 2008. This happens when journalism becomes so competitive that one has to create stories and dramatize events. Such stories are examples of a media culture that hypes real issue and aims for quick public popularity notwithstanding accuracy of the content.
Truth be told, stories based on personal, commercial and organizational interest still dominate Nepali media even today. Most of these have been repeated so often and in so many settings that they have taken on an aura of fact. Global Integrity Report claims that state-run media such as Nepal Television, Radio Nepal and publications under Gorkhapatra Corporation has always been the mouthpiece of the ruling party, and stories are often misused to propagate respective political ideologies. Since private print news paint a different picture of the story, this has consequently motivated violence among different outfits in the society, such as the Young Communist League (YCL), storming the Nepali media house and physically attacking the media persons. When media outlets proffer a different opinion of the facts, they are conducting a concerted effort to misinform, deceptively causing a “misperception” of reality in their audience.
But what remains scary is that constructing such views of the “other party” as the antagonist in the story is an exercise of power. And defining the “other party” in negative terms gives the dominant party greater control to influence public policy as well as the attitudes of ordinary people. Following the Nepal’s 2013 Constituent Assembly elections, the Nepali Congress (NC) party had won more than 2.4 million votes followed by the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN). The news coverage carried out by Nepalese broadcast and print media revealed that the three parties; UCPN-M, CPN-UML and NC received the highest and favorable airtime allotted on TV and print news based on the report from the European Union Election Observation Mission in Nepal. Consequently, this influences public's views resulting to changes in voting behaviors and electing public officials - the men and women who make the laws and generally run the country.
Much more, selected words written in newspapers to describe an event often misconstrue what really transpired. Many of the misleading phrases used in news can be deceiving such as the use of “relocation” instead of "forced transfer of civilians" or "elements in the credibility gap" instead of “lies.” Some reports are even taking interviews out of context, picking words leading to a person’s credibility being questioned. The 2009 media integrity scorecard noted a civil society activist has to say about Nepal’s media professionalism: "When a news items gets published in a newspaper about an alleged act of corruption, it is sometimes difficult to differentiate if it is (1) a professional medium at work, (2) a ploy to defame a political adversary, (3) a proxy shot at an honest person on behalf of media groups or (4) even a notice of extortion." Part of the reason is because journalists' salaries and incentives are inadequate, fostering breach of code of conduct especially in the tabloids.
As a result, recorded cases of misinformation, sensationalism, and plagiarism have affected Nepali media credibility, based on a report conducted by Media Foundation. For instance, the highly publicized story (from April 2011) about Anuja Baniya, a girl who falsely claimed she had returned Rs 9.1 million she found in a bus to the rightful owner, or the case of Ashish Luitel (early 2012), a Kantipur reporter who was found by the newspaper's own investigation panel to have plagiarized several of his columns, serve as classic examples of potentially declining media credibility in Nepal.
Thus, in order to protect the integrity of Nepali media, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) and Press Council Nepal (PCN) have jointly developed the code of conduct for journalists with the latter acting as statutory body that regulates the press in terms of the implementation of the said code of conduct. Nepal Press Council Act under Section 12 provides for hearing and settlement of complaints against abuse of press freedom by media practitioners from any person or a party aggrieved. For years, there has been a steady increase in the number of complaints lodged by private parties in Nepal Press Council wherein most of the complaints were categorized as defamation. And this raises an even more staggering question: is Nepali media worthy of credibility and trustworthiness?
As media stories continue to shed lights to the issue of gender-based violence, what is arguably wrong is how these data are translated to faces and names in media. According to police data, about 793 cases of domestic violence, 256 cases of rape, 163 cases of murder and 32 cases of trafficking were registered from April 2012 to April 2013. From this statistics, images of the rape victim, the sexually abused child, all of which are staring back at you with pain and traces of atrocities in their eyes, has become rampant in tabloid papers. My concern is twofold, first is the issue of privacy and secondly, whether the publication of images of the victims was in the public interest. The Nepal Press Council’s code includes a provision “Do not penalize the victims: Not publish, broadcast or produce-distribute any news or opinion with the use of language, sound, picture, figure, scene or the like in such a way as to make the victim suffer further pain.” Although respect to the privacy of the victim’s information is explicitly mentioned, this has not been consistently practiced especially in media outlets outside the capital city. Which makes us wonder, what is the use of the code of conduct when a medium that violates common decency is not penalized?
My personal contact with fabricated stories, wherein I appeared as a 19-year old Filipina girl living under the Bagmati Bridge with a baby in tow following a relationship with a Nepali guy who abandoned me, was published in a Nepali tabloid without any inch of respect and veracity of truth. What was most indefensible is that it was written in Nepali language, much to my impairment to decipher and read the words, and my inability to defend the truth. This has somewhat stained my trust to Nepali media the same way that it has ruined my reputation. I have personal accounts of Nepali journalists telling me that he just cannot print the real version of my story simply because the editor wont allow it due to editorial pressures. As much as senior editors, publishers and proprietors often set the climate of self-censorship; the end result is that every journalist will be able to make a responsible decision alone. For me, there is never a good reason for not reporting a genuine story simply because of media politics. I can only hope that sense of new vigilance to pursue and validate the truth in Nepali media deepens and widens this year.
The breakdown of traditional forms of journalism has also evaded numerous Internet sites. The social media in particular has changed all that. Based on 2013 study, there are 1,890,820 Facebook users in Nepal placing it in the number 66th position within the global ranking. The Nepali social media has served as a pivotal role in launching public campaigns on pressing issues such as “Occupy Baluwatar” that called on the Nepali state to better address the widespread problem of impunity and gender-based violence following the rape incident of a migrant worker. The call for safety for the “Adhikari couple” has prompted the government to investigate the murder of their son. The “Nepal Khulla cha” is a famous anti-bandh campaign to protect Nepali’s right to self-dignity and right to work. There are also transport-oriented campaigns advocating for people centric transport development in Nepal such as the MAYA campaign initiated by UN-Habitat and Clean Energy Nepal with the Clean Air Network Nepal, Cycle City Network Nepal and Nepalese Youth for Climate Action. What all of these demonstrates is that social media has now become a free and open source platform that empowers underrepresented voice from the society. Since many voices go unheard and are often overlooked in mainstream media, social media has provided an online platform to share stories and raise awareness about issues that matter most to under served communities. Suddenly, the public refused to be scorned or humored; suddenly it demanded to be heard. Another facet of new media, online journalism, has seen a huge surge in recent years. In 2011, Nepali journalist Ujjwal Acharya quotes, “This is the historic beginning in citizen journalism. Today, Nepali bloggers began a new chapter by signing their own code of conduct,” after the Code of Ethics for Bloggers was signed in July 27, 2011. Although most of Nepali blogs are responsible and already ethical, the code of ethics has helped establish Nepali blogs as a credible medium of information.
This increased facility with technology has also raised issues on how photographs and images are used and circulated in the news without citing the source. There have been rounds of accusations passing around photojournalist’s circle that Nepali newspapers print their captured photos without the photographer’s endorsement and approval. Obtaining permission can be a complex and sometimes frustrating process for a photojournalist, particularly if Nepali newspapers would assume that available images online are free to use. Since historical stories proved to have a recalling effect to the audience when they come with the most dramatic pictures, the drama of war and violence and achievement could be captured on those small frames. Think of the image of “The Final Embrace” and you will remember the two victims amid the rubble of a garment factory building collapse in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. The single image still holds some defining power in our society, yet the rights of the image capturer has not been full explored and protected especially in Nepal.
Still, while Nepal has a fairly tolerant legal environment in terms of freedom of expression and press, there have been attempts on the lives of journalists especially women. The Nepali media landscape has revealed that out of 956 editorial media workers from 73 publishing houses outside the Kathmandu Valley, females constitute only 5.33%. Likewise, of the 693 editorial media persons from a total of 41 publishing houses within the Kathmandu Valley, females constitute only 4.4%. Threats on journalists are widely reported, and intimidation is common. Reporters without Borders has detailed attacks on journalists during the Constituent Assembly elections held on 19 November. Most of these acts of violence were attempts to gag news providers. This was particularly clear in two incidents. In one, RSS reporter Raju Bishwokama was manhandled by border police on 7 November when he photographed them paying money for illegally imported goods. His camera was seized and the photos were deleted. In another incident, Nagarik Daily reporter Dhruba Dangal’s camera was seized on 20 October after he took photos of police responsible for election security and his photos were deleted. The newspapers were also targeted during the strike, which was called by 33 parties led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), a splinter group from the UCPN-M. On the first day of the strike, 12 November, newspaper distribution was badly affected throughout the country, especially after stones were thrown at the truck carrying the Nagarik and Republica daily newspaper near Gwarko, south of Kathmandu. Nepal is ranked 118th out of 179 countries in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
Some people supports the claim that violence against journalists stems from activist journalism, another facet proliferating in the Nepal’s media environment. Nowadays, journalists question not only the existing principles of impartiality but demand for clarifications of their meanings. But when are activist journalists not propagandists? When do they represent partisan political voices and when do they become journalists with a valid cause? More than this, how can we develop a more nuanced understanding of this area of journalism?
As always emphasized, journalism is a daily process of painting a genuine picture of the world. Recognizing that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort, the pursuit of the news should remain free of associations and activities that may compromise the integrity or damage credibility. Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other and must abide by the highest standards to which they hold others. The code of conduct is a blueprint to which journalists can turn to gauge the seriousness of their commitment to accountability. However, Sydney Schanberg, a reporter for The New York Times for more than twenty-five years and recipient of many awards including a Pulitzer Prize says, “It's no secret that journalism has become more slipshod and reckless, at times promiscuous. Every journalist surely also knows that the old-time standards have been weakened if not discarded. Most of us in the business, however, stand by as mere observers.” Which brings us more to worry; is the same problem on weakening media standards damaging Nepali media environment today? And because Nepali media has been hounded by accusations of unbalanced and selective news throughout many years, it is time for some weighty changes in the reporter’s mindset. If Nepali media will be able to survive its biggest test of credibility, then this becomes a testament to its trustworthiness.
This story was printed in Samhita, the official publication on Nepal Press Council in December 2013.