Normative theories of the press often inform us that free media play an indispensable role in the proper functioning of a democracy because of their capacity to scrutinise the powerful. Media in a transitional democracy struggling with issues of peace-building and democratic elections are burdened with additional roles, such as securing peace and educating voters. Nepal and its media provide a recent example of the latter situation.
The historic Constituent Assembly (CA) elections of April 2008 in Nepal served as a rare opportunity for the news media of the new Himalayan republic to demonstrate the highest possible professional standards. It was a daunting task for the press, which had suffered continued censorship and intimidation through much of the past decade, marked by civil war between the state and the Maoist insurgency. At least two dozen journalists were killed in the line of duty during this period, while scores more were injured, maimed and displaced.
The conditions under which reporting had to be done during the campaign season were far from ideal. The pre-election period was rife with regional ethno-political tensions in Tarai, the country’s southern plains. Emotions ran high, rumours circulated, and major political parties complained that the state media, by then under the control of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), were being used as that party’s propaganda machine. The Maoists countered with the allegation that “big media” – a reference to private sector news organisations – were antipeople, capitalist and against peace.
Critics feared that the media could become the battleground for political spin and manipulation. The broadcast media’s wider access to the electorate (with 150 radio stations and 9 television channels in a country of 30 million people) and their perceived immediate effects on voters and candidates also added to the Election Commission’s anxieties.
Experiences elsewhere underscore the validity of such apprehensions and indicate the potential impact of the media on elections. New democracies in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe provide many examples of media manipulations during elections. Noted democracy expert Larry Diamond, for example, asserts that media have at times transformed the basis of individual voter behaviour. Pippa Norris, a professor at Harvard University, suggests that media have played an important role in terms of agenda-setting, persuasion and mobilisation during elections, particularly in countries with rich media environments.
In view of increasing public access to the media, the immediacy of the media and their potential to inform and educate voters, or even mislead them, there was an imperative need to monitor, assess or evaluate media coverage under the extraordinary circumstances in Nepal during the 2008 elections.
Indeed, media monitoring has in recent decades become a critical component of election observation in many countries. The nationwide monitoring programme in Nepal – undertaken by Press Council Nepal (PCN) at the behest of the Election Commission of Nepal (EC) from 9 March to 13 April 2008, with support from United Nations agencies and donor organisations – adopted twin approaches in analysing media content. Approximately 100 media monitors subjected the prime time content of 23 major broadcasters, as well as 15 print publications, to systematic content analysis. An additional 43 radio stations and 59 newspapers from regions with high media clusters and/or considered hotbeds of conflict in the southern plains were covered in the qualitative analysis.
The overriding objective of the project was to periodically update the EC on the media’s role in the electoral process, in the education of voters and in the dissemination of accurate, fair and balanced coverage in compliance with the Election Code of Conduct for the mass media.
As seen in many past elections around the world and as feared by some analysts, media coverage of the CA elections in Nepal focused primarily on a few major political parties. The three major political parties – the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) – together cornered three fourths of the total time and space given to the 54 contesting parties. They also led others in direct attribution opportunities in all the monitored media.
The private media gave more quality time to the NC and CPN (UML) whereas the CPN (Maoist) received more quality time in the state media, which were under the control of that party. Coverage was by and large personality-driven and tended to focus on candidates with individual charisma, who could deliver compelling soundbites or quotes, conflict and drama. For example, the Maoist leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (commonly known as Prachanda), led all other candidates in direct attributions.
Women and minority candidates rarely figured in coverage. The tone of coverage was more or less positive for ethnicity-based political parties, negative for Tarai-based and pro-monarchy parties and neutral for others. However, overt political bias was largely confined to opinion journalism. For example, weekly newspapers and opinion shows aired by the broadcast media were often partisan in their coverage, favouring a particular party or its candidates over others.
Overall, the media appeared relatively restrained in their coverage, generally complying with the EC’s code of conduct, which urges media to refrain from bias and hate speech, maintain decency in language, support the electoral process, and uphold the professional obligations of journalists.
In both government and private media outlets, hard news stories were generally balanced and detached. However, there were scattered cases of biased coverage in some weekly newspapers, on private radio stations and in opinion/analysis programmes in the state media. Some programmes in the government media were overtly pro-CPN(M). Maoist candidates were frequently mentioned in a positive manner and Maoist sources dominated coverage. For example, Radio Ganatantra, based in Dang, excluded news relating to parties other than CPN(M). Media favouring specific parties often aired stories based on speculation and ideological assertion.
The bias of the state media towards the Maoists was clearly evident in “Ghatana Ra Bichar,” a primetime commentary show on Radio Nepal. On 23 March, at the height of the campaign, the EC ordered the radio station to suspend its programme on the grounds that it was violating the code of conduct. The “Jana Aawaj” show on the government-controlled NTV aired appeals seeking votes for Maoists.
Some private broadcasters were also found to be shoddy in their programming. For instance, Kantipur TV’s “Bholiko Nepal,” a children’s show repeatedly aired a promo projecting Prachanda as “Tomorrow’s Nepal.” Virtually the entire coverage time on Bhaktapur FM was devoted to a local party. Some private broadcasters outside Kathmandu also conducted opinion polls, even though they were prohibited during election time by the EC. At least one radio programme used first person reporting, referring to a particular party as “our party.”
There were also isolated cases of violations which reflected poor adherence to journalistic norms as well as some insensitivity regarding language. For example, the op-ed pages of newspapers, opinion articles in weeklies, commentaries and analyses in the broadcast media, as well as stories reporting on speeches by political leaders, with direct or paraphrased quotations, were often so rhetorical that they could be confusing to the public. Some media outlets also used communal constructs, such as Pahade-Madhesi, or effectively segregated communities, such as Moslems or Yadavs, in their stories.
Some shows aired remarks calling for violence and retaliation. Defamatory remarks about individual candidates (without naming them), sometimes including sinister allusions, in language laden with preconceived notions about conspiracies, “foreign handsm,” “big media,” sabotage, etc., were also circulated. In fact, one radio station from Janakpur was warned by the EC for using communal and insensitive language.
Several incidents of political obstruction of the news process by political parties, as well as some cases of self-censorship by local journalists under pressure from political parties, became known during the post-election period.
Nevertheless, the Nepali media appeared generally supportive of the election process. Only a few publications or broadcast outlets were found to be disseminating news and views that could be considered unhelpful for the conduct of the election. Such stories typically called for a boycott of the election or raised doubts about the inevitability of elections.
Except for a few violations by radio stations located in some regional towns, the media on the whole complied with the electoral code. The EC wrote 16 directives to media outlets found to be violating the code. Such shortcomings aside, the media did give due priority to the CA election, candidates and campaigns.
However, a major shortcoming of media coverage during the CA elections was the absence of in-depth coverage of issues, possibly due to the pressures of deadlines and news routines. The education of voters was generally limited to coverage of preparations for the poll and the names and manifestos of candidates. Issues concerning the Constituent Assembly, the process of drafting a new constitution, the credentials, background, experience and skills of candidates, and so on, did not receive much media attention. In this respect the government media fared better than those in the private sector.
There was an effort on the part of the media to be inclusive in terms of raising issues about women, dalits, madhesis (an ethnic group based in the Terai plains) and other disadvantaged groups. But such coverage was not only scanty but it did not take into account several other ethnic communities and identity groups (of which there are over 100, according to official estimates).
Election-related public service advertisements of the EC frequently appeared in the government media. In addition, the state-run broadcast media provided free airtime to most political parties to publicise their manifestos. However, not all parties got this opportunity and even those that did were not accorded equal time and space.
Finally, besides providing support to the election process, the media had to adhere to some professional obligations. The EC’s code prohibited journalists from seeking undue benefits from political parties and candidates. Only one report of a violation of the code in this respect came to light in the course of the monitoring – a complaint that some local journalists were openly campaigning for a Terai candidate. The code also required media outlets to immediately publish corrections or retractions of errors in news coverage. However, examples of corrections and retractions were scarce.
The monitoring was largely content-focused and its findings are only partially reflective of coverage trends. The professional obligations of journalists go beyond what is reflected in content, and it was not really possible to gauge from the content whether or not the journalist concerned had got undue benefit from one or other political party and/or candidate.
A fair assessment of the Nepali media’s coverage of the CA election must also take into account the context in which they were operating. Notwithstanding their quantitative growth and increasingly widespread reach, a large segment of the Nepali media had little training or experience in election reporting. For the CA election they suddenly had to take on a new and challenging responsibility, which involved and required far more awareness and knowledge than they had gained through covering general elections, the parliament, or conflict in the past. Unable to set their own, clear agendas for the fast-paced coverage of election news and to recruit trained, full-time reporters to cover the election, many outlets focused primarily on political events and speeches, thereby becoming source-driven.
Extra-media structures, such as flawed legal provisions, a fluid and uncertain political environment, economic and partisan interests, and insecurity in the context of continued intimidation of journalists may have left at least some media establishments without clear direction. The generally restrained coverage could be indicative of a high degree of professionalism in the Nepali media or of self-censorship amid fears of more threats to or attacks on the press. At another level, the relatively few instances of rectification could point to the absence of a culture of self-assessment and self-criticism by the media.
Fear of sanctions by the EC or poor understanding of the code (which, admittedly, did not receive adequate publicity) may also have led some media houses to go by a conservative interpretation of the code. For example, one editor was dismayed about having lost advertising revenue by declining ads on the wrong assumption that the code prohibited the publication of political ads during the campaign period. Similar incidents may have had implications for news coverage. The code was based on assumptions about the media’s loyalty to readers and their allegiance to a democratic morality. In practice, media loyalties are often divided between readers, owners, advertisers and political parties, among others, and it is often the logic of the media – based on drama, competition and profits – that determines priorities.
The lack of adequate follow-up by the authorities was also a source of frustration for some media outlets. The code of conduct left it to “the concerned media to observe the directives of the EC,” and the EC, in turn, issued directives to correct practices that constituted violations of the code. However, there was hardly any follow-up on such directives. Some journalists and media managers bemoaned the fact that even their good work was not appreciated and acted upon. For example, the live coverage of some underage voters casting ballots at a polling station in Birgunj by Avenues TV was widely publicised but the voting at that centre was not invalidated. Thus an excellent example of a private broadcaster’s helpful vigilance failed to ensure that election rules were followed in the interest of fair polls.
It is not uncommon for “the monitors of power” anywhere in the world to suspect those who monitor them. The staunchly independent orientation of news workers underlines their journalistic professionalism. The Nepali media seemed generally supportive of the monitoring process in terms of their coverage of the conduct and findings of the exercise. Some recognised its deterrent effect on the nature of coverage.
In closing it must be emphasised that elections, which constitute a part of a larger democratic process, do not end on the polling day; nor does the need for good reporting. A long-term approach is required. Nepali newsrooms need to nurture a culture of selfassessment and in-house monitoring, coupled with issue-focused training for journalists and a reliable support system, in order to ensure consistent, critical coverage of the democratic process.
It is also important to note that, in a true democracy, there are no better monitors than the public. Objective media literacy and media criticism should inform individual habits of media use among citizens.