Presented at National Press Club of Canada in interaction program titled Media in post-conflict states
It is not the function of our government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the government from falling into error. Robert H. Jackson, US Supreme Court Justice
There are many ways of looking at the media, especially the mass media. And when it comes to an ordinary observer like me, the perspectives become more personal and may not represent a societal view that could be found by someone who does systemic research in this field. Nevertheless, even an ordinary observer can see that the mass media has excessively shaped our individual and societal psyche, and we are not short of opinions about them. Personally speaking, I have more questions than answers on the role of the media in society, although I firmly embrace it as part of our collective identity.
A number of questions come to my mind when I think about the media. Whom are they serving? Individuals, society, owners, corporations, or someone else? Who owns them? What value do they bring to me? Are they coaching me to be an insatiable consumer of toys, cereal, and gizmos? Are they the sources of tangible information to inspire the innovation and thinking? Or, are they simply entertaining me?
Only undeniable aspect of media is that they transmit information meant to be consumed by the public. As a student of engineering, when I examine this, I see that mass media transmit data that is deliberately composed by some people to convey a message to other people about something. In theory, by the virtue of consuming this information, I should become an informed person. However, I question whether the mass media is making me more informed or less informed. I question whether my daughter, who sits in front of the mass media on a daily basis, is becoming an informed person better able to make decisions or is becoming prone to making poorer decisions as a result of it. Due to this internal query, I conclude that a worthy media is the one that makes me well-informed and does not become a source of misinformation.
I, therefore, love to inquire if it is possible for the media to be a source of timely, correct and precise information about issues that concern me and my society so that I can make better decisions to improve my wellbeing. I dislike when they become indispensable resources to those with deep pockets, manipulating our psyche in order to produce a negative sum game for the average consumer of information. Remember the role of the American media in selling the Iraq war to the American public. I do not think that the media was serving the best interests of the whole society. I feel as if we are as free as the powerful people want us to be. Even without going that far, I so often feel as if the media is conditioning us to become cola-drinking and junk-food eating couch-potatoes with neither the knowledge nor the desire to know about how our society is governed and what our society is all about.
The mass media can remain relevant to me only when it can distinguish its civic and ethical duties from its professional duties. It has a responsibility similar to that of a citizens of a society. If we become intoxicated by our professional growth alone and forget the fact that we are humans first and foremost, we can become a danger to our own society and in turn a danger to ourselves! We all have this responsibility to enhance the wellbeing of our society at all times, and the mass media has to remain an important and constructive part of this picture.
While emphasizing that media must be objective and ethical let me now come to the stated theme, which is about the media in post-conflict states. While I struggle to identify a single society in the world that is completely conflict-free, the “post-conflict” terminology would certainly make sense in many countries if we consider only violent conflict as the conflict. Nepal can be a prime example of a post violent-conflict state. In recent years, Nepal has been able to mitigate the armed nature of its internal conflict but the conflicts of other natures still persist and will always remain in various forms. However, when looking from the perspective of the media, the central question is not of the conflict per se but it is of the issue of independence of the media.
What is independence of the media? To me, independence is a state of being free, or at least a state of not being dependent. In this sense, I have great deal of difficulty recognizing where in the world free media might exist. Although I can safely say that the media in countries like Canada are far freer in comparison to countries like Nepal. This freedom is admirable only in relative sense. When a few corporations can control almost all media firms in a country, their ability to remain “independent media” are certainly being compromised. We very well know that many media firms are controlled by interest groups more for the purpose of controlling and skewing the public discourse than for a noble purpose of serving the humanity independently. And Nepal faces the same problem but only with a greater severity.
The headache for countries like Nepal, however, emerges from the fact that the media is not only controlled by select partisan groups, but also by the state in order to advance a fixed set of ideas. The state and private media firms are often developed in order to advance the ideals of their primary owner. Consequently, the problem remains unsolved even if the state media were to be decommissioned. As long as a select group gets to control the media, nothing will help us make the media independent.
Therefore, the key challenge of our time remains in the system of governance itself. Today almost all governing systems in the world adopt three independent branches: the legislature, the judiciary, and the executive. Here the executives and the judiciaries can largely counter each other. However, there is nothing to systemically counter the legislature. Traditionally the media was supposed to be that branch but it was never given the same footing like the others. To give you an example, when the legislature says Marijuana is illegal but tobacco is not, no one in the whole country is able to demonstrate the hollowness of this legislation.
Until the day there cannot exists a fourth faculty in the system of governance to work as a formalized counterweight to the legislative body, the faculties knowledge and information will not be free of oppression. Consequently the media will never be free and independent; it will remain in the shackles of somebody other than the public. This hinders the media from becoming truly free and we perpetually remain in a mediocre state of freedom. We then have to find satisfaction in being better than those who are worse than us.
Simply put, we need that counter-faculty, which can legally and formally prove that tobacco is more harmful than marijuana. This fourth faculty is a vital component of a vibrant and progressive society. By the way, media is only one of many important players of this faculty.
This leaves a room for post-conflict countries like Nepal to introduce a fourth branch of governance where, legislative, executive, judicial, and innovative faculties counter each other. This arrangement gives rise to a new and independent faculty that is responsible for the production and distribution of knowledge and information. Only when the production and distribution of knowledge and information is not constricted, truly independent media can be born in the world.
Media has served us well but its total contribution is far lower than what its potential would suggest. And the primary reason for this is that is has yet to be truly independent. I, therefore, believe that we have a big revolution to bring about in this arena to better serve the new era of information and communication.