Inclusive and independent media are the basics of democratic elections. They play an important role in voters’ literacy by connecting political parties and people. Staying away from spreading mis- and disinformation, as well as hate speech, could help the media maintain its credibility alongside its hard-earned freedom. Journalists act as defenders of human rights and gatekeepers of mis/disinformation, so it’s crucial for them to thoroughly check and verify information by applying fact-checking measures to disseminate accurate and verified news stories during elections.
Be it during elections or in normal circumstances, the lasting principle is accuracy, balance, and credibility for which journalists should adhere to the standards of ethical reporting to promote inclusive media content to uphold democratic and participatory elections. While the majority of Nepali media continue to contribute towards ethical and inclusive media content providing space to diverse voices and watching upon election frauds, recent actions of the state apparatus against the independent media are both disappointing and threatening.
State apparatus controlling media
As elections to the provincial assembly and the federal parliament taking place on Nov 20 gear up, the state apparatus particularly Election Commission Nepal (EC) and Press Council Nepal (PCN) along with the conventional political parties have been engaged in reminding the media about its role in maintaining ethical integrity. The recent actions of the EC, a constitutional body responsible for holding free and fair elections, and the PCN, a regulatory body for media in Nepal, are against the fundamental rights provisions on free and independent media.
The act of the commission asking a news portal to remove news stories claimed to have been associated with an electoral candidate is not only an attack against independent media, but it reflects the level of EC authorities’ understanding and defining ethical code of conduct for media. The commission as such has no right to ask media outlets what to write and what not to write. On the other hand, the PCN officials are plagued with confusion on the interrelationships of ethics and freedom. The daily warning letters issued by the PCN to media outlets including newspapers for a couple of months got widespread criticism from the experts and advocates of free and accountable media.
A warning letter to summon the editor and cartoonist issued by the PCN to a daily newspaper for publishing a cartoon about a leader’s failure to fulfill past election commitments reflects PCN’s serious lack of understanding about its dual mandates of defending the free press and implementing journalists’ code of conduct. A serious review of the mandate of PCN including appointment procedure of the office bearers is immediately required.
Media’s political inclination
Criticisms surrounding PCN’s officer bearers’ political inclination including openly participating in political rallies, calling for voting to a group of candidates i.e. women, and lobbying with leaders to get appointments are some crucial problems that need to be discussed immediately. It’s true that a section of journalists who associate themselves with political parties via media-related sister organizations has enabled a critical voice against the independent media. They take pride in being members of the political parties on one hand and advocate for free media on the other. This has provided space for the state apparatus to attack the integrity of the free press, often monitoring the content of professional media outlets.
It’s obvious that PCN in its current capacity and mandate could not effectively monitor the journalists’ code of conduct as they continue to serve political interests. It’s high time that the EC should look into suspicious political activities of the PCN and journalists who engage themselves in elections-related political activities including direct publicity campaigns, rallies, and other engagements. It has, however, no right to seek clarification from the media in their work towards the production and dissemination of the news content.
It’s worth reminding the EC and the PCN that the fundamental rights provision under the Article 19 of the Constitution of Nepal guarantees the right to communication. It states, “No publication and broadcasting or dissemination or printing of any news item, editorial, feature article or other reading, audio and audio-visual material through any means whatsoever including electronic publication, broadcasting and printing shall be censored.” The article reads no radio, television, online or other forms of digital or electronic equipment, press or other means of communication publishing, broadcasting or printing any news item, feature, editorial, article, information or other material shall be closed or seized nor shall registration thereof be canceled nor shall such material be seized by the reason of publication, broadcasting or printing of such material through any audio, audio-visual or electronic equipment or press.
Analyzing interrelationships between media freedom and ethical standards in line with human rights principles and the constitutional guarantees, consulting media rights advocates and experts, and observing local realities on how elections and media integrity can be maintained could probably provide some good vibes to these authorities enabling them to respect free and accountable press. Similarly, commercial and independent media outlets should institutionalize the ‘ombudsperson’ practice to empower their staff, particularly reporters for ethical reporting.
Amid the high possibility of political publicity and information distortion plagued by propaganda and disinformation, Nepali media needs to be sensitive about their content. The state and regulatory bodies should play a facilitating role. The democratic state apparatus should not show an authoritarian character to suppress an independent and inclusive voice. An immediate and/or future reviews and wider consultations are required while issuing a code of conduct for journalists during elections.
Only a collaborative approach among stakeholders that focuses on values of free and accountable press could help counter misinformation and hate speech to ensure free and fair polls. A constant media watch upon the electoral system rather than approaching it just for news sources is another effective way to prevent authoritarian attacks against media and elections integrity. Both media scrutiny towards the independent functioning of the electoral organs and introspection on media ethics would reflect well on informed electoral decisions.
The author is the chairperson of Media Action Nepal and is an internationally recognized media rights advocate