Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Democracy and Journalism

'Democracy needed journalism to get started. Journalism needs to re-absorb the values of democracy into its own self-conduct if it is to function effectively: to open itself to scrutiny and challenge.'(Ian Hargreaves, Journalism: Truth or Dare, OUP, 2003)

"It is difficult, in looking back; even to separate the concept of journalism from the concept of democracy. Journalism is so fundamental to that purpose that societies that want to suppress freedom must first suppress the press. They do not, interestingly, have to suppress capitalism. At its best, journalism reflects a subtle understanding of how citizens behave; an understanding that we call the Theory of the Interlocking Public." If we try to separate journalism from democracy well, then, it may be news, but it's not journalism.

The theory of freedom of the press assumes that the press will not overlook the needs of poor and powerless. Actually, journalism is the voice of the voiceless people. Though mass media have a dual responsibility- to their owners and advertisers, and to the public; both of them are very important; but the priority should be given to the public. Only then the freedom of mass media will be meaningful. The mass media in democratic system are often described as a ‘trustee’ or ‘representative’ of the people, and even as a ‘fourth branch of government’ because of its duty. It is only in a world of duties that rights have significance. The press must be a watchdog, not a lapdog.

Before going through the intermingling and interdependence between Journalism and Democracy in detail let’s learn about the State-Press relation of Myanmar.

In Myanmar, media can only report news sanctioned by the government. Minimal international news is reported. Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy magazine, described journalism in Myanmar as "comatose."

Myanmar newspapers print official decrees such as the 1982 citizenship law. Myanma Alin (New Light of Myanmar), published since 1914, is distributed in four languages and contains daily government press releases and negative international wire articles about countries critical of Myanmar. Editorial cartoons denounce the opposition's National League for Democracy.

Myanmar officials are especially angered by media they think might cause people to regard the government disrespectfully. Most Burmese realize that news is for the most part manufactured to portray the junta as Myanmar's best rulers.

Political parties were united into the Burma Socialist Program Party, which further tightened control of the press. The 1962 Printers' and Publishers' Registration Act stated that only government-approved media could apply for the annual licenses that were mandatory for operation. Media was ordered to focus on topics supportive of Burma's socialist revolution. By December 1965, private newspapers were forbidden. Military leaders established The Working People's Daily as the official distributor of government news. The bureaucracy controlled access to limited supplies of newsprint and paper. The traditional Burmese media was effectively paralyzed.

The government tries to block news regarding any negative events in Burma, with the end of keeping the current government in power. Because reporters cannot prepare factual accounts about topics that the government considers taboo, news is unreliable. Political enemies such as opposition leaders are described unfavorably, and all state-owned media is required to present these opinions. Events that are covered internationally, such as opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's release in 1995, are restricted from Myanmar media. The Ministry of Information indoctrinates government journalists at journalism courses. Reporters are expected to write pro-government propaganda and never criticize leaders or their political actions. Articles are not to mention political corruption, reform, education, and HIV/AIDS. Even stories telling about losing Myanmar sports teams and torrential rainstorms are forbidden. The press is not welcome at government meetings.

Liberal theories accept that intermingling and interdependence of the journalism and democracy is inevitable. The proposition by default or otherwise envisages a meaningful role for the media in a democratic society. So little wonder that the journalism is regarded as the nerve of the polity in democracies.

Since democracy and a free press cannot meaningfully prosper in the absence of the other, the spurt of mass media in Nepal in the post-1990 era seems only but natural. In spite of the inherent failings and shortcomings of the fledgling democracy, the openness that it ushered in did have its implications. Irrespective of the glitches and hitches, the Nepali media did take a leap forward. Media development, thereafter, doesn't seem to have looked backwards.

The journalism, given the favorable environment, grew in reach and number. It also made inroads as a productive business venture and profession. That makes it obvious that the advent of multiparty democracy and liberal economic policy had its underpinning in the advancement of the Nepalese journalism.

The evolutionary growth that came about vis-à-vis the 1990 changes saw the Nepalese journalism grow both in terms of quantity and quality. The trend that picked up with the print has now spread across audio and audio-visual mediums. Alongside newspapers, magazines, radio and television networks of various hues and shades, the growth has encompassed the online medium as well. The internet-based sources, which cut across geographical boundaries and time zones, are also gaining ground at their own momentum and pace. Community-based initiatives are other telltale examples of the progress.

However, in spite of the apparent achievements, the challenges of the digital divide continue to plague the polity. The inequitable access to opportunities within the industry is another issue to reckon with. The want for a fair and sensitive media is an equally glaring concern facing the fourth estate. Nonetheless, despite the underlying challenges and dynamics, the spurt has been momentous. By any reasonable standard, the extent of media outlets, investors and professionals that have come about is noteworthy.

For a country of 25 million, there are 11 national dailies now catering to the populace. There are nine television channels currently hitting the airwaves. The number of radio networks and news portals among other ventures in the print media is equally staggering. But that is not all. There are newer media ventures in the pipeline. This might defy conventional business logic, but the number only seems to be growing.

The growth, despite a greater number of alternatives, serves well for democracy; for a bigger and accommodative public sphere translates into lively debates and discussions. This not only stands consistent with the ideals of liberal democracy but also paves the way for inclusion of pluralistic notions and approaches in practice.

The advancement nonetheless does not spell an end to the media's role and duties. This, in fact, heaps burdens on the fourth estate. The growth inevitably means greater competition among the fraternity notwithstanding the diminishing deadline. The changed context also translates into larger public expectations, which inevitably calls for a sensitive media role and intervention.

In other words, the media's functioning as a watchdog is being further streamlined if not redefined by the day. The media's duty as against conventional wisdom is not merely to inform, educate and entertain. As per the changing context, a vibrant media has to play the frontrunner in the realization of a just society. It has to emerge as a champion of the people in the truest sense. However, for that to materialize, the media first and foremost has to introspect.

The Nepali media as a civil society entity has garnered its share of acceptance. Its space in a functioning democracy has been duly recognized. The media as an advocacy tool too has been practiced and discussed. Despite such propositions, there are however, gaps and grounds to be covered.

To begin with, the Nepali media has oft been criticized for associating with the elite. The refrain is that the media is so elitist and plays the lapdog. The Kathmandu-centric reality has also found its space in public discourses. In other words, there are persistent calls for fair and inclusive media rendering.Nonetheless, the media against a backdrop of a violent conflict and the times of transition has had its share of experiences. It is widely believed that a newspaper is a reflection of society. By that token, media experiences in Nepal, given the challenging times, does mirror societal realities.

For starters, the International Media Mission that visited the country early this month raised an alarm over the continued threat to press freedom in Nepal. The mission, quoting the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), said there were a staggering 342 press freedom violations in 2008 alone.

The mission was equally concerned over the significant escalation of physical attacks against journalists and media houses. The international mission, to drive home its assessment on the shaky times, underscored that four journalists-Uma Singh, Birendra Sah, Puskar Bahadur Shrestha and J.P. Joshi-had been killed since 2006. Such an assessment indeed speaks volumes of the challenges confronting the fourth estate. That depicts the grim reality that journalists face in everyday life. Call it ironical or what you will; the state of the watchdog of society, in turn, reflects the state of affairs dogging the country.

With a new constitution in the making, Nepal stands at the crossroads of history. Unfortunate though, a spate of uncertainties now transcends the socio-political realm. Amid the uncertainties, one thing is sure and certain anyway. There is an unprecedented people's desire for a just and equitable society. The transformation, however, won't see the light of day sans a free press and liberal values in place.

Read what Thomas Jefferson, a former U.S. president, had to say, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Works Cited:
Adhikary, Nirmala Mani. Communication, Media and Journalism An Integrated Study. 1st ed. Kathmandu: Prashanti Pustak Bhandar, 2008
Myanmar press
Myanmar Protest
Amnesty overview (of Myanmar)

Media Studies- 4th sem

1 comment:

nirmala mani adhikary said...

You may include other references as well. The writing itself is good enough.