Sunday, 3 March, 2024

    Democracy and Media   


Symbiotic and Mutually Reinforcing


Aashish Mishra


Democracy and free press are almost synonymous with each other. One cannot exist without the other. Democratic frameworks put provisions in place that guarantee that the press can function without any fear of persecution and a free press ensures transparency, builds a well-informed citizenry and keeps the democracy healthy by providing the people with quality, untainted information. Democracy rests on debates and discussions which are, in turn, created or fostered by the press or, in a larger context, the media.
That is why the media prospers in a democracy and democracy succeeds through the media. This is the case everywhere in the world and by tracking the history of our country, we can see that this is the case in Nepal as well. Although the history of media can be traced back to the Rana era when many magazines and newspapers, including the state-owned publication Gorkhapatra, began publication, its practical history only begins from 1951 after the fall of the Rana regime.
The dawn of democracy meant that, for the first time in history, Nepal’s press was free to report on issues of public concern. Several pioneering journalists seized the moment and heralded the age of modern journalism in Nepal. In fact, Nepal got its first daily newspaper ‘Awaj’ less than 24 hours after the proclamation of democracy on February 18, 1951. The media industry boomed with countless monthlies, biweeklies and weeklies. At the same time, it also got more diverse and inclusive. English, Hindi, Maithili and Nepalbhasa-language publications emerged and women entered the sector with Kamakchha Devi leading the way as the first female journalist of Nepal. Similarly, she and Sadhana Pradhan were also the first female editors of Nepal, editing the magazine ‘Mahila’ in 1951. Radio Nepal started broadcasting regularly and two news agencies were established. Nepali media well and truly was reaping the benefits of the democratic dividend.
But, little did anyone know at the time that this “media boom” was not to last. Media growth is directly proportional to the level of democracy in a nation. Before 1951, Nepal had no democracy and hence, had next to no media. After 1951, Nepal gained never-before-seen freedom and thus, our media landscape exploded with never-before-seen life and vibrancy. But this did not even last a decade. On December 15, 1960, the infamous day of Poush 1, King Mahendra dismissed the elected government, centralised power in his own hands and dismissed democracy.
And with democracy gone, the press boom vanished and the media whittled down to a shadow of what it had become in the preceding years. The political legitimacy and the validity of King Mahendra’s Poush Ek, or as senior journalist and the editor of Nepali Times Kunda Dixit called it, Putsch Ek, can be and has been debated endlessly by intellectuals far superior than the writer of this article is. But everyone agrees that it strangled the media. But this period also saw an unprecedented level of care shown by the state towards the media, albeit care driven mainly by an intention to control.
An autonomous Ministry of Communication was established along with the national news agency the Rastriya Samachar Samiti. The Press Council was founded and Tribhuvan University began teaching journalism which helped Nepali media take a professional turn and start matching global standards. Gorkhapatra became a daily, Radio Nepal’s transmission expanded outside Kathmandu and Nepal entered the television era with the establishment of Nepal Television (NTV). But all this development of infrastructure did not really translate into the development of content. Yes, there was mission journalism but that was more focused on advocating one side rather than impartial, balanced, truthful reporting of facts.
The real growth came after the restoration of democracy in 1990. Press freedom, freedom of expression and the right to information were now constitutionally guaranteed. The private sector grabbed this opportunity with both hands and non-government media, which were previously limited to the fringes, now became mainstream. Nepal’s largest media house, the Kantipur Media Group, is a product of this time.
But, once again, this era of growth and prosperity was not to last. The Maoists started the ‘People’s War’ in 1996 and stagnated the country and its media. There was now an atmosphere of fear. Journalists were targeted, both by the rebels and the state, for publishing materials that went contrary to the propaganda they were peddling. Many reporters feared going to the villages and talking to the people. News of the violence and insecurity overshadowed every other issue. Then, later after King Gyanendra seized power, press freedom reverted to what it was in the Panchayat era i.e. non-existent.
In 2006, Nepal got democracy once again, this time a federal republic democracy. Coupled with the advent and widespread use of the internet and social media, Nepali media moved online and news portals mushroomed. This growth has not stopped to this day.
So, as we mark the 70th democracy day, we in the media fraternity must not take the freedoms we have today for granted. It is our responsibility to safeguard our democracy and make sure that it is not threatened by any force or entity. Any enemy of democracy is an enemy of the media.

(Mishra works at this daily)