Prizes, pay for hacks: Missing the goal

There have been several disturbing proposals on how the government wants to support the development of a free media. These include, the institution of an award for a senior journalist, and another the establishment of a permanent commission to determine journalists’ wages.

The draft of the regulation for the award suggests that the plan is to create a trust fund of Rs. 10 million and use its proceeds to award a prize (and Rs.100,000) to a journalist every year. The

recipient should have served the profession for over 30 years, and have completed the age of 55. The pay commission is to determine and monitor enforcement of the minimum wages under the Working Journalists Act (WJA).

Let’s look at the proposed prize first. Does the notion of a government trying to recognise the work of a journalist tell anything? In a country where journalism along partisan lines, both declared and obvious, is the norm rather than the exception? Yes, it does.

We still take pride in having done mission journalism in the past. What it essentially means is journalism in support of democracy (before 1990) and, narrowly, it was a journalism that glorifies the period when media served political parties as mouthpieces.

Juxtapose this with the proposed award and its

regulation of 30 years’ service, and what that could essentially mean is that it is meant for someone who had served one political party or another.

Furthermore, even if there were a professional recipient with that much of history, how would such an award do to encourage the development of journalism of the day? Because young journalists, who are among the better educated and now the backbone of the industry, are excluded as they have not logged 30 years, how can it be an incentive for them to be professional and do journalism that can bring the government to account? Therefore, any award that uses public finances should be open to all and the basis of selection of the recipient should be good journalism, not grey hairs.

What Nepal needs is an award for young professional journalists to recognise their work in these difficult times (perhaps, the most difficult for journalists, ever) and encourage them to stay on in the profession.

Why does a government have to be involved in selecting the recipient? Had it been other than rewarding journalists who toe its line, the onus of selection would have been placed on the representative body of journalists, editors and publishers, or the media industry. And the government would have sought a facilitating role as member secretary without voting rights. But this is not the case, as the representative journalist

organisations are only

to be members in the selection committee.

Now, to the second proposal: to have a permanent board to monitor and enforce journalists’ wages. Frankly, it’s the first idea of the kind I have heard about.

According to the buzz, the government is preparing an amendment to the Working Journalists Act (WJA) to upgrade the minimum wage fixing committee into a permanent Media Parisramik Board (Media Remunerations Board). It would then be empowered to monitor compliance with the WJA and recommend enforcement through the office of the Press Registrar. (Note: this body has been in the law for ages but has never been instituted).

The action against non-complying media are to bar them from receiving Public Service Announcements (PSAs paid for by the

government), disqualify them from receiving customs exemptions and to stop issuing press passes to journalists from the said organisations.

All this leads to one question: what is the role of a journalists union? Is it not the body that should be doing collective bargaining

on behalf of its members with newspaper owners for compliance? Perhaps so, but it is also one activity none of the journalist unions, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) the umbrella organisation, or other party-affiliated journalist unions have ever done. Therefore, here we stand inviting government intervention.

The so-called punitive actions proposed also raise more questions than answers. First, who is going to be affected if the government stops PSAs to non-compliers? It may affect the small newspapers whose readership and even regularity are questionable in terms of finances.

Customs exemptions also have little meaning to large companies and it will ultimately affect new comers. The other proposed action, to withdraw press accreditations. will not affect the non-complying media but the journalists themselves. Such an act would indirectly also affect free speech and the public’s right to know.

So what, you may ask after reading all of this. The point I am trying to make is that the present government should not be making these half-baked proposals they cannot support the

development of a

professional, free press in Nepal and instead focus on guaranteeing basic freedoms in the constitution that are vital for media development. If it still wants the award, it could set aside a kitty and give representative journalism organisations and industry representatives the responsibility of selecting recipients, not retiring journalists but young journalists with promise. —