Media in conflict Tight-rope walking for journalists

Gokul Pokhrel

It is about eight months since the Maoists abruptly withdrew from peace talks with the government. The deadlock has unleashed a spate of violence. Casualties on both sides are rising and the law and order situation is on the verge of dislocation if not reaching a state of collapse. The national media are busy with head-counts and filling the pages with stereotype statement of political leaders and ministers. The common people are bored with political harangues and condemnations that have failed to make any impact in their psyche.

The Thapa government has been left with limited choices and leans heavily on the security apparatus to deal with the situation. In every day life, people are already facing enormous hardship caused by shortage of consumer goods, steep price rise and unending spate of blockades. In the absence of parliament, the direct rule by the Royal nominees lingers on as the agitating five-party alliance has not relented to put pressure on the palace to hand-over power to them as they claim to be the bonafide representatives. The innocent people are milled in the cross-fire of tri-partite struggle which, if unresolved, might push the country into untold misery comparable to Cambodia or Afghanistan.The credibility and integrity of journalists are put to test as they are required to perform tasks, often not palatable to either side of the conflict. The State expects the media not to report events that are likely to favour the insurgents, who resent media that portrays them in bad light. The public want them to shun propaganda and present news and views in a balanced, fair and objective manner.

Correspondents based in the field find it quite risky in covering the incidents free from fear and intimidation. In most cases they are suspects as informers and spies. While there are several reported cases of abuse of media credentials by either side to suit their purposes other than informing the people, it certainly should not make other genuine journalists in fulfilling their duties honestly. This is where the representations by media organisations in acquiring the confidence of the parties in conflict have not been effective. Neither media organisations have succeeded in demonstrating that their reportage are free from biases, slants and leanings. There are several cases of assault, torture and abduction of media men by both sides. Many have lost their lives while others are left with serious physical and mental impairments.

The gruesome murder of reporter Gyanendra Kadka in early September by the insurgents has incurred strong protests and condemnation by various professional organisations at home and abroad. The other extreme is the internment by security forces of a number of journalists not in friendly terms with the government. Many journalists visiting ravaged zones are stringers, poorly paid and without any risk coverage benefits. There are doubts whether the media, many of which are under partisan influences, is prepared to respond to conflicting expectations of the warring parties efficiently and effectively.

One of the direct fallout of escalating conflict and political polemics is found in the emergence of a highly critical public receptive to more authentic information as never before. The sluggish circulation of newspapers has picked up again as the public are in search of not only more information but also a fair and impartial presentation of facts. This has put severe constraint on party-oriented newspapers either to improve their contents or perish in competition. Radio broadcasting has proved its advantage by being a low-cost and universally accessible medium even to the illiterates who constitute 47 per cent of the population. The regional and international air channels are popular as the people listen to them for more impartial presentation of facts. This has compelled the state media to change their stereotype propaganda and adopt objectivity. The rapidly expanding network of FM radio stations are having a fair share of listeners as the public get glued to its broadcasts for periodic updates of information. In fact, nothing is selling more than news and views in present days.

Parallel to these traditional channels of information, are the emergence of several on-line editions monitoring the conflict situation that reach specific groups of opinion makers. The efficient network of Internet has made it possible for over half a million domiciled Nepalis to get an instantaneous update of the situation at home. In short, Nepal is already on the global information scene due to scale and dimension of the internal conflict that will, sooner or later, have regional spill-over effects.

The tri-partite power struggle has put the information media under severe strains. They have to operate in an atmosphere of hope against despair and disappointment. The public, in desperation, have reasons to search in the media a commitment to restoration of peace and civility against anarchy and disruption. Now the question is: Can the media muster sufficient moral weight in forging common alliance against the forces of violence? Can the media be a broker of peace by galvanising public opinion where politicos are a failure? Can the media prevent Nepal turning into a failed State or a mass graveyard of bitter power rivalries? The choices and options are before every body who claim their stakes in turning Nepal into a better and prosperous world from the present hardships.Pokhrel is chairman of Nepal Press Institute