Media and Good Governance

Tapanath Shukla, Nepal

The important role media plays in fostering an environment of good governance needs hardly be emphasized. As the watchdog and interpreter of public issues and events, the media has a special role in every society. In our information-based society the media has a disproportionately visible and influential role.

Democracy cannot exist in the absence of a free press. This is because democracy is based on popular will and popular opinion depends on the public’s awareness and knowledge. It is the mass media that brings up, promotes and propagates public awareness.

The main responsibility of the press is to provide comprehensive, analytical and factual news and opinion to the people on everyday issues and events of popular concern. To fulfill its duty and responsibility, the press must work according to the fundamental principles of professional ethics, as well as norms and values of journalism.

1. Press freedom

Democracy can neither be sustainable nor strong without a free press. On the other hand, press freedom will not be possible without democracy. Therefore, the mass media and journalists must be committed to democracy. For this, the press must be perpetually involved in the establishment and promotion of a democratic culture.

2. Right to information and freedom of expression

The press must remain ever vigilant to protect and enforce people’s freedom of thought and expression and citizens’ right to all information relating to the various aspects of their life and future.

The fact that access to information is a citizen’s right must be taken to heart, and information must be presented in a simple and palatable manner. Right to information is inherent in democratic functioning and a pre-condition for good governance and the realization of all other human rights, including education and health care. The main objectives should be the promotion of transparency and accountability in governance so as to minimize corruption and inefficiency in public office and to ensure the public’s participation in governance and decision making.

3. Accuracy and objectivity

Media must be credible and trustworthy. Trust is the most valuable asset for any media. Once lost, it cannot be earned back. It is for this reason that all media must uphold their principles to provide accurate and factual news and other programmes.

4. Impartiality and diversity of opinion

It is not enough that news presented by the media is factual. It must also be impartial, covering a diversity of opinions. Both sides of the argument must get due consideration. Voices and opinions of all the groups, ethnicities, languages, political and religious beliefs within the society must be included.

5. Fairness

Broadcasters must not harbour any prejudices for or against any individual that is mentioned in the news item. Hidden recording can be carried out without permission only if there is adequate basis in the public interest to do so.

6. Violence, crime and anti-social behaviour

Broadcast organizations must protect the society from crime, criminals and criminal activities. Any material that promotes violence and ethnic, religious, linguistic and other kinds of hatred must not be broadcast. Programmes that glorify violence and crime, or turning criminals into heroes, must not be allowed. However, programmes that clearly spell out the consequences of violence and provide moral education should be encouraged.

News and other programmes that promote ethnic, religious, regional and cultural goodwill in the society should also be encouraged.

7. Protection of the underprivileged

Issues, opinions and expressions regarding women, minority communities, neglected groups, elderly people, disabled and backward classes must be given the opportunity to be aired.

To guarantee the rights and interests of the marginalized and underprivileged communities, content should be rights-oriented.

8. Political impartiality

Broadcasters must understand the difference between politics in general and party politics. Media should not be a vehicle, or used as an advocate for any political party or ideology.

Public and political issues should be clearly understood, analyzed and presented in an impartial manner.

9. Elections

During elections / political campaigns, equal time slots or opportunity must be allocated to each of the legitimate political parties and candidates.

In the course of elections, messages that encourage goodwill and harmony among all the ethnic groups, religions, genders, cultures, languages, regions and communities should be broadcast.

Media plays the role of watch-dog in reporting corruption, complacency and negligence. In a changing, competitive landscape, compliance to good governance has never been taken so seriously, as people demand more transparency from both the government and private sectors. Responsible practices from government, universal principles on human rights and the fight against corruption have assumed great importance.

A flourishing media sector enables people to make informed decisions, becoming more effective participants in society’s development.

In a developing country like Nepal, the relatively low level of literacy, the variations in topography and limited access to electricity all make radio the most suitable medium to satisfy the information needs of the masses.

A robust, independent and pluralistic media environment is crucial for good governance and the overall development of the country.

Freedom of expression, free flow of information and fair reporting without government and commercial influences are accelerators of development.

The rapid growth of private independent radio and TV broadcasters and the changing role of the state boracasters are creating a more congenial atmosphere for the effective functioning of the media as a major player in good governance.

Nepal has gone through phases of armed conflict, struggle for democracy, abolition of the monarchy and the tumultuous events leading to the declaration of a Federal Democratic Republic, and the media has been a vital player at every juncture.

The issue of good governance assumes the highest priority in an atmosphere of chaos, instability, insecurity and lack of accountability. These are also characteristics of the absence of a legitimate, democratically elected government.

During times of political upheaval when attempts were made to stifle press freedom, the media has stood up and played the role of watch-dog and ombudsman, upholding “public interest” above everything else.

Let us now examine the relationship between media and good governance

1. Transparency

Radio can play an active role in promoting transparency in governance. By reporting on issues with adequate research and objectivity, radio ensures that citizens are well informed and that their right to information is protected.

2. Participation

The issue of inclusiveness has featured in many debates and discussions. One of the causes of the Maoist insurgency was inadequate representation of the marginalized groups in the decision making process. Radio can ensure the greater participation of marginalized groups, ethic communities, language minorities and the underprivileged. Nepal has witnessed the greater participation of such groups through a process of empowerment brought about by responsible media.

3. Accountability

Media also ensures accountability through adherence to generally accepted standards. While giving a voice to the voiceless, the media has also played its role in holding those in power accountable for their actions.

4. Stability

Radio serves as a unifying force by providing a forum for informed debates in times of political conflict. Informed and responsible citizens contribute to the stability of the country.

5. Fairness

The essential quality of the press is to be fair and just. Radio in Nepal has always attempted to be fair in reporting events during times of upheaval and political uncertainty.

6. Human rights

Respect for human rights is the hallmark of every democracy. In a country like Nepal, there have been instances of violation of human rights by opposing sides in a conflict. Radio has been quick to report on human rights violations on numerous occasions. Ensuring human rights leads to good governance. Radio is the most effective tool to draw the attention of the concerned authorities as well as the international community to human rights issues.

All the above contribute to ensuring effective government, and radio lies at the heart of good governance.

Observance of the requirements for neutrality, upholding balance and impartiality, educating the public on governance issues and exposing malpractices should be the guiding principles for radio broadcasters.

There have been times when the media in Nepal resorted to sensationalism in reporting crime and criminal activities. Reporting ethnic or religious riots must be undertaken with caution, always keeping ethical values in mind. It is the duty of the media to be balanced and also to ensure that the consequences of the reporting do not disturb law and order or ferment unrest. Desperate attempts by competing media to win audiences through sensational reporting should not be encouraged.

In conclusion, I wish to stress the need for radio to evolve in order to fulfill its function to ensure good governance.

Radio must promote and help enforce human rights more assertively. It must strive to maintain its role as a public watchdog. The media should neither doctor facts nor resort to reporting along partisan lines. It cannot be expected to report anything but the truth. It is precisely this role -- and the responsibility that comes with it -- which radio needs to assume. It is a development which the government needs to accept, and further facilitate.

Mr Tapanath Shukla is Executive Director of Radio Nepal