Three decades ago, Nepali months of Magh and Phalgun were full of political events in Kathmandu. Political parties, civil society, intellectuals and journalists were bracing for the decisive nationwide pro-democracy movement against the party-less Panchayat rule. Major political parties, including the Nepali Congress and different factions of the Nepal Communist Party, reached an understanding to launch a joint movement. Nepali media made a clarion call for the reinstatement of multiparty democracy. They published the content highlighting the rationale as well as preparation and plan for the joint movement. The Nepali press during that time was divided into two main camps - pro-Panchayat and anti-Panchayat.
With the restoration of multiparty democracy, the nation ushered in a new media system. Following the qualitative and quantitative growth of media in the last three decades, the country is now expecting more reliable and professional media that can really play the role of watchdog in the changed context. Most of the media outlets showed their partisan leaning during the phase of democratic evolution. Nepal had witnessed a flood of newspapers that were not under the control of the government in the aftermath 1950-51 political change. The Nepali newspapers in general had followed professional practice before 1960-61.
Partisan trend However, they divided politically following the dissolution of the parliament in 1960. Nepali newspapers then entered a fully partisan era. The ruling elites tried to promote political propaganda in favour of new system. Countering the government-sponsored newspapers that also included from private sector, the opponent political activists struggled to employ the newspapers as an effective tool for political communication. In the years between 1960 and 1990, the major trend of Nepali journalism was marked by their partisan trait. All the newspapers were slanted to one or another faction of Nepali politics.
During that period, the political groups directly or indirectly ran small weekly newspapers. The competency of an editor lay in presenting vigorous arguments in support of given political parties. A person can be qualified for editorship of newspapers if s/he is ready to face any harsh consequence, including imprisonment. Hence, top political figures brought out the small weeklies assuming the role of both editor and publishers in an effort to form a public sphere. After the referendum of 1980, which provided an option to select between the reformed Panchayat system and multiparty political system, the Nepali press entered another era of struggle to achieve autonomy.
However, they functioned more like that of the 18th century’s French newspapers that were struggling to create the public sphere in time of revolution. The newspapers, the first mass medium, became truly public during that time. Habermas argues that newspapers made public affairs and discussions about such affairs accessible to individuals scattered across space. By public sphere, he means mainly a domain of the social life in which such a thing as public opinion can be formed. Hence, technically, this denotes the advent of what is today understood as a public sphere.
The public sphere is an area in social life where individuals come together to freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion they influence political action. Running a newspaper by the supporters of Nepali Congress or Nepal Communist Party during the time of absolute monarchy was an attempt to echo alternative voice. Hence, the concept of the public sphere can be considered as a tool to understand the social world or life world of that era. Thirty years on, Nepal has been practicing multiparty democracy and free media. Thus, the time of struggle to cultivate the public sphere is now part of history. The proliferation of wide-ranging technologies and outlets, including the new media, has drastically transformed the Nepali media landscape.
In ancient times, the public sphere was a specific meeting place. With the development of media and communication technology, the character of the public sphere transformed from a location to a communication network. Now the public sphere has widened its scope. Access to the public sphere is open in principle to all citizens and the Nepali society has free media that serves as the public sphere. However, since the public sphere is constituted in every rational conversation in which private persons come together to form a public, the Nepali media need to enhance the quality of discussion to spur communication action.
Communicative action Habermas identifies three types of communicative action - transferring of information, establishing relations among people, and enabling everyone for expression. In other words, the Nepali media need to emphasise communicative action which makes the general public more cognitive, interactive and expressive. A prime responsibility of free and professional media would be to encourage every citizen for careful thought or discussion because the formation of rational public opinion can guide the political system. The public sphere is constituted through everyday communication practice and such everyday communication means a mediated communication. However, the process of the formation of space through critical communication depends on the democratic quality of everyday interaction.
Nepali mass media now need to concentrate on achieving communication rationality to further enrich and consolidate democratic polity. Habermas believes communication rationality enables the formation of a public sphere and it would be instrumental for the development of rational public opinion. This is because only a rational public opinion can hold formal decision-making accountable. Nepali media are performing under a political atmosphere where free flows of information, free expression, and free debates are guaranteed by the constitution.
(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)