Media control - Scoops and exposé
Information is well known for its power. But disinformation mostly based on rumours is better known for its greater power.
To realise it, let us remember the days running up to the people’s movement in 1990. The government media first ignored and later distorted the political protests taking place in different parts of the country. That however did not help prevent the agitation from going further up. The direct suppression of correct information was the spread of rumours that had no limits. Let us recollect the fictitious stories surrounding the members of the royal family, which were, nonetheless, inflammatory and effective in infuriating the people against the then regime. The lesson is clear. The only alternative to information is disinformation. By fresh regulations, the government is up to managing information to boost disinformation.
Our government is very efficient in driving the people from the official media to independent media and, then, further to foreign media by emasculating the native media. That was the clear process we observed in 1990 and it is being re-enacted in 2006. As the people are not satisfied with the information the official media feeds, they turn to other independent media for more credible information. When the government clamps down censorship on the independent media, the people turn to foreign media for information about their own country. Thus, the government stands guilty of diverting public attention from the official to private media and further to foreign media. To turn it around, the best way for the government is to keep its hands off the media and leave it under the control of professional bodies and public scrutiny.
In fact, it is wrong for the government to run the media in a democratic set-up. Till it is under the government control, there is no way it can be independent or objective. It has to write, speak or broadcast in support of the government no matter how stupid it might be. Naturally there is one-sided reporting in the official media. It is natural for an authoritarian government to tighten its grip over its media. But what surprises us is the unwillingness of the democrats to let them free and independent.
There is yet another wrong approach the state apparatus is adopting in dealing with information. Let’s consider the Auditor General’s report on the Army Welfare Fund. There was nothing new in it except that it was an Auditor General’s report, authentic findings by an authentic constitutional body. Otherwise the welfare fund had come to light for its irregularity, mismanagement and non-transparency several times in the past. What was, however, new in the recent imbroglio was the witch-hunt to locate the person who had leaked the information to the press. It is indicative of the fact that the authority in charge of the fund, instead of keeping its house in order, wanted to find scapegoats to keep it away from from public attention. That explains the search for the leak agent so that no one would dare do it again.
There are three agencies involved in the investigation leading to preparation and access to the AG report — Auditor General’s Office, Supreme Court, and Army Welfare Fund. There are a large number of officers and non-officers involved in the work. To try to locate the guilty person is like looking for a needle in the haystack. If successful, it must be commended as a great achievement. But so far no such luck is reported.
The crucial question is, how long will you go in suppressing information and how far will you be successful? To develop a full-proof mechanism against any leakage of embarrassing information is indeed a stupendous task, which is, at least, not possible in civil administration. There are bound to be disgruntled persons in all administrations and they are potentially dangerous in this game of leakage. Will any office in public or private sector be able to screen its workers to the extent of securing absolute secrecy?
When I asked a few editors known for scoops in reporting and exposes of scandals as to how they get those sensational stories, they said it is pretty easy. I asked if they have planted some whistle blowers in those places. They said, “No, we don’t have to do it. We get all these stories without efforts. The insiders send the information to us without our asking them. Actually, we have no inkling what is happening where. It is the discontented elements within the system who supply the spicy information to us. We don’t have to go to them. We have found that most of the information turns out to be true.”
In that sense, it is not the reporters or journalists who investigate but it is the insiders of the offices who feed the press with information of sensational nature. So the rule of thumb in regard to information is — greater the secrecy you try to maintain, greater the chances of its being leaked out, not by the outsiders but by the insiders. Is there any limit to cleaning process?
Shrestha is co-ordinator, Volunteers Mediators Group for Peace