Culture & Art

Radio for the Common Good : Can Nepal’s broadcasters become public service journalists?

Germany underwent a radical transformation in many fields after the Second World War, and the mass media was no exception. Determined to prevent the use of mass media to spread propaganda, hate speech and to catastrophically mislead the people ever again, Germany took a bold step by completely separating the state and media. This gave rise to the unique German media movement of Public Service Broadcasting.

Public Service Broadcasting is just that – radio, television and internet with the intent of serving the public interest. Advertising is severely restricted and the main source of income is the fees collected from every household which is €17.98 per month.

Radio Bremen is one of nine public broadcasters that fall within the ARD (Arbeitsgemeinschaft der öffentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, translated as the Consortium of Public Broadcasters in Germany) and transmits radio and TV to the region of Bremen and Bremerhaven. Even though it has the word ‘Radio’ in its name, it operates on all broadcast platforms: radio, TV and internet.

Like Germany, Nepal has also seen times of state control of the media, with censorship and threats to journalists. The state-owned media Radio Nepal and Nepal Television still have little to no editorial independence and are viewed by most Nepalis as the mouthpiece of the government of the day. The private media, as in other places, are over-commercialized. The overall media scenario of the country is a rather gloomy one, lacking credibility. This is further compounded by the fact that major editors and owners of news organizations are often presumed to be serving the interests of one or other political party.

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The question is could the Nepali media, especially broadcasting, truly reflect the public interest? Could there be a model solely dedicated to the advancement and betterment of public welfare, free of any state interference and accountable to and inclusive of the minorities and marginalized voices and not just the majority?

Any hope of public service broadcasting in Nepal can only come from the ‘public’ broadcasters Radio Nepal and Nepal Television (NTV) because the private media is unlikely to cater to any other interests aside from commercial ones. This is just an accepted fact and is the situation all over the world, even in Germany.

But what might surprise even most Nepalis is that Radio Nepal is already technically a public service broadcaster (PSB) and it has been so since 1985, when it underwent an organizational transformation from a government funded and controlled media to a self- sustaining one operating under an independent board.

But the public service aspect of it can really be questioned because it is not hidden from anyone that its content is controlled by the government. It is the same story with Nepal TV. Furthermore, both these broadcasters are not integrated and thus only cover aspects of broadcasting – radio and TV only. And what keeps both from being true PSBs is government interference — key positions such as the Director General are political appointments. A high-level task force in 2007 had recommended that the government free NTV, Radio Nepal and the state-owned Gorkhapatra newspaper and news agency RSS from its control. Stop printing newspapers and operating a news agency, and turn NTV and Radio Nepal into independent public broadcasters like the German model.

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Progress have been slow, but there are steps being taken to merge Radio Nepal and Nepal Television into a single entity.  Also, Radio Nepal has already been classified as a PSB and so has some regulatory framework in place which can be extended to NTV as well after merging. There would not be a need to start from scratch. Another strong point in this regard is that both of these are self-sustaining in nature and thus can exert their independence from the government.

But this initial optimism fades away once you peek behind the curtain and delve deeper into the technicalities. The key features of any PSB are accountability to the people, element of public finance and regulation of advertising (Blumer, 1992:102; BRANTS & Sicene, 1992; Tracey, 1998:26‐ 29).

Let us review them one by one. Regarding accountability, the media being discussed here are accountable to the government and not the public. Often times, these media act as blind supporters of government policy rather than being the watchdog that the public interest demands. Also keeping them from leaving the government’s side is the fact that their heads are appointed by it.

The times when NTV and Radio Nepal have shown their public service potential have been after disasters like the 2015 earthquake, when they broadcast credible and verified information about damage and relief needs. They have also been independent during times of transitional governments, or ones led by technocrats like the 2013 pre-election interim government.

The lesson seems to be clear: remove government interference and the stations can be PSBs. Senior management appointments could be done by a committee which may include the government but also many other relevant experts, thus preventing monopoly by any one party. But herein lies the problem. How would you define the term ‘relevant experts’? Who are the relevant people to include, or rather who aren’t?

Everyone is affected by the media. Should religious groups be consulted? If so, which ones? Because Nepal is a secular state everybody’s concerns should be taken into regard. Should the ‘marginalized’ groups be given a priority? These and many other concerns would be the cause of a huge headache and would render any such appointment committee incapable of functioning or at least functioning in an unbiased manner. So, the aspect of public accountability is simply too complex to be solved in the near future.

Another comes the element of public finance. The Germans pay a special fee as mentioned for their PSBs but the same arrangement could not be replicated in Nepal simply because such a fees would be too unpopular. Nepalis already get charged exorbitantly for even the most nominal of services like electricity, water and adding a fees for radio or TV would just be too much to bear for the low-income Nepali households.

Also, people would simply not pay. Nepal’s tax mechanism is already wildly inefficient which allows many people to avoid payment of taxes very easily. What’s to say that the fees would be effectively enforced and efficiently collected or that people will pay honestly? This fees has the real possibility of becoming just another tax that people don’t pay.

And this leads to the third point. With no guarantee of public finance, advertising shouldn’t be restricted in any of these media because then, they risk losing their self-sustainability and it may come to a point that they have to shut down. With advertising, they can’t function as true PSBs. This is the paradox.

In conclusion it can be said that the feasibility of Nepal’s public media becoming public service media is minimal, at least for the near future.

Aashish Mishra

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