Dream of public broadcasting service in Nepal

Taranath Dahal

With the intention of transforming government controlled broadcaster Radio Nepal and Nepal Television into “Public Service Broadcasting” in accordance with internationally established norms, various programs were put in the legal and institutional framework front by the Government of Nepal in the budget statement of FY 2011/2012. This move was supposed to have a significant impact on the overall media landscape of Nepal. Every year since then, this commitment has been included in the government’s policy and budget. However, concrete work is still to be done.

Considering the possibility of political misuse of the mass media under the direct control of the government, it is high time that Radio Nepal and Nepal Television be kept among the state media which are completely free from political interference. Instead, it must be operated as a separate independent broadcasting organization.
Public service broadcasting is established with the aim of ensuring the freedom of expression and right to information of the citizens, providing free access to information through broadcasting and producing active citizens. It also aims to develop an inclusive, pluralistic and informed society. Ultimately, its primary purpose is to utilize the media as a common platform for civic dialogue. National unity and social harmony can be promoted through public service broadcasting. The need of the hour is to produce and broadcast information, knowledge and practical educational programs by expanding the medium of broadcasting through multi-channel approach using the modern developments in the field of information technology.

Transformation of the government-controlled Radio Nepal and Nepal Television into a public broadcasting service has been long overdue to ensure a clean public opinion through quality, balanced and credible presentation by ensuring maximum editorial freedom. Additionally, the focus can be reiterated to produce and broadcast healthy entertainment programs based on national culture.

Public service broadcasting entertains diversity of ideas and perspectives existing in the society without any discrimination. Thematically, such broadcasting organizations address the issues and voices of ethnic and minority groups, women, youth, children and backward classes. On the contrary, profitable commercial broadcasters usually do not or cannot produce non-profit based programs. But, public service broadcasters can establish their uniqueness by distinguishing themselves from other broadcasters because they make these unheard voices audible.
The issues of public interest should not be sidelined for business interests over financial gains or advertisements. It is equally important to guarantee diversity and plurality in the expression of ideas.

Moreover, it is the duty of a democratic and welfare-oriented government to provide fair and easy broadcasting services to the people of the country, rising above the vested political interests.

In a report on the Media for Peace project conducted in 2013 with the support of JICA, Radio Nepal said, “… The program guideline has been prepared with the objective of producing and broadcasting practical, educational, informative, developmental and healthy and entertaining programs based on national culture using the available modern technology and creating a clean public opinion through quality, balanced and reliable presentation. However, the plan has not been implemented due to lack of legal transformation in public service broadcasting in that direction”.

Immediately after the People’s Movement-II, the Government of Nepal, in 2063 BS, under the leadership of Senior Advocate Badri Bahadur Karki, started drafting a bill to make provision for a public broadcasting institution. In the title of the basic guiding principle of the report, it was stated that the ethnic, cultural and geographical diversity of the country should be given due importance. Hence, the draft provided that public service broadcasting should include balance, fairness and Nepal’s cultural diversity. The draft also mentioned that arrangements should be made to produce and broadcast the programs through Radio Nepal and Nepal Television which covers agriculture, finance, industry, trade and business, rural development, income generation, animal husbandry, communication, education, health, sanitation, environment and environment protection, preservation of diverse cultures, historical and national heritage and vital educational and informational.

In 2072 BS, the task force comprising Coordinator Nir Shah and member myself suggested to develop public service broadcasting as an impartial forum for political dialogue and debate. It was also recommended that a clear goal should be set to develop a pluralistic mass media that can give respect, importance and space to critical and alternative perceptions. Importantly, the content of public broadcasters should reflect the diversity of society.

1. Recognition
Public service broadcasting has to be established to bring recognition to ensure freedom of expression and right to information of the citizens. Such a body should adhere to the principles of creating active civic public opinion by providing free access to all through broadcasting, developing public service broadcasting as a common platform for civic dialogue, and developing an inclusive, pluralistic and information-based society.

In addition, it should promote national unity and social harmony through mass media, using modern developments in the field of information technology to expand the medium of broadcasting through various channels, producing and broadcasting informative, practical and educational programs, producing and broadcasting healthy entertainment programs based on national culture. In order to strengthen unity, the values of preserving and developing the cultures of the country and creating a clean public opinion through quality, balanced and credible presentation by ensuring maximum editorial freedom must be followed.

2. In principle, public service broadcasting should aim to provide free, fair, and unbiased national broadcasting service to all citizens in all parts of the country. The report of the Task Force has suggested that it would be reasonable to adopt the following basic principles while forming a public service broadcasting organization in Nepal.

• To make the public service broadcasting an autonomous, independent and organized body by establishing it as an institution.
• To make arrangements to establish the council as it’s directors.
• To make arrangement for the appointment of the officers of the Board of Directors in the act.
• Public service institution must adopt the method of conducting public hearings and social audits to various stakeholders on an annual basis.
• To make arrangements to submit the annual report of the Public Service Broadcasting Foundation to the president. After making necessary discussions on the report, the parliament will make arrangements to give necessary instructions to the Public Service Broadcasting Foundation.
• To empower the public service broadcasting to make necessary rules and regulations to regulate its work.
• To make arrangements to keep the authority of monitoring and operation of public service broadcasting institution within the jurisdiction of the public service broadcasting institution as a federal body even if they are established and operated at the state and local level.

3. Structure and Accountability
Public broadcasting should be free, fair and accessible to all citizens. It should cover the entire region of the country. Due to the uniqueness of its working nature, it seems appropriate to operate as an autonomous and independent institution with an integral succession. The entire right to exercise the law must be vested in such an institution. The body should be a symbol of a public welfare autonomous organization established for the public good. In addition, such an institution should be fully autonomous in determining, selecting and administering its programs. It should also be established in federal and provincial level.

Public Service Broadcasting should have the full right to compile and disseminate information-oriented, knowledge-oriented, practical, educational and healthy entertainment programs by acknowledging the access of citizens of all parts of Nepal. The task force formed by Kashiraj Dahal to formulate an act for public service broadcasting as an autonomous and self-governing body has already submitted the draft two years ago.

It seems appropriate to give the responsibility of general management, operation, control supervision and direction of the work and operations of the Public Service Broadcasting Foundation to the Board of Directors. It seems appropriate to make rules, regulations and directives of the institution by making necessary arrangements for the institution of the authority. In addition, it seems reasonable to give the institution the right to formulate, evaluate, develop and operate standards for other broadcasters of public service nature.

Lawmakers should be aware of the fact that it would be appropriate to set up a permanent high-level investigative committee in the event of a dispute over the council, as well as a high-level ombudsman committee on editorial disputes.

It seems necessary to make an act in such a way that the working methods and responsibilities of public service broadcasting are also clear. Broadcasting institutions should run under an autonomous council, with an authorized director general as the executive structure. Additionally, the executive leadership level of radio and television broadcasting should be clearly defined.

The responsibility of the public service broadcasting institution should be towards the general public. For the purpose of accountability, arrangements should be made to present its report directly to the Parliament who then can discuss it and give instructions with necessary supervision. The institution should adopt a ‘technology friendly’ policy and strategy. An open institution should be able to easily adopt any technology that fulfills the main goal of informing Nepali citizens in a simple, easy and quick manner.

The general and special duties and conditions of the institution should also be determined. The main reasons and objectives of operating public broadcasting services in Nepal should also be clearly defined in the law by promoting national unity. Structural arrangements and scope of work should be determined for the purpose of inclusive and participatory approach to create the national language and culture as a common heritage.

The Public Broadcasting Service can collaborate with other broadcasters in the country to produce and broadcast programs. Legal openness to content sharing or buying or selling must be ensured.

Broadcasters under the Public Broadcasting Service should be allowed to broadcast informative advertisement material. Advertising classification and broadcasting guidelines should be their own. Advertising should be the financial and business sources of the institution. The openness adopted in the advertisement contents should aim to provide welfare based information to the citizens of Nepal.

The law should ensure the autonomy for the maximum diversity of language, community and geography. The scope of public participation and the legal obligation should be adopted to fulfill their social responsibilities.
The packages should be prepared to accommodate the employees currently working in Radio Nepal and Nepal Television in the Public Service Broadcasting Foundation. Extensive training campaigns should be conducted to increase the efficiency of the existing staff and orient them towards new responsibilities. As the existing number of staff is insufficient, a transitional plan should be made to add the required manpower as per the phased implementation schedule.

The role and responsibilities of public broadcasting services in times of disaster, election and crisis should be added. For this, a separate directory should be formed. Public service broadcasting should be able to guarantee easy access to all parts of the country and ensure an alternative system of infrastructure and technology. To do this, a legal base must be formed to develop an autonomous infrastructure.

The method of public debate on audit, program and technology evaluation reports should be ensured. The meeting of the council should have the authority to make the budget of the public service broadcasting council. Also, the resource management should be as per the budget proposal passed by the council “which is to be spent from the omnibus fund”. And, economic autonomy must be fully guaranteed by law.

Institutions should have legal responsibilities to produce maximum content themselves. For this, guidelines should be drawn to set clear boundaries for purchase and cooperation with program producers. This should clearly be indicated in the law.

Self-reliance in resource management should be ensured to release it from the budgetary constraints so as to nullify its reliance from market based resources such as advertising and time sales. At least 80% of the operating expenses and all the physical and technical capital expenses should be allocated from the budget. The institution should also have the autonomy to mobilize domestic and foreign resources to raise technology and capital. However, this should affect the purpose of public service broadcasting.

4. Editorial Policy and Priorities:
Current public service broadcasting of Radio Nepal and Nepal Television should cover a significant amount of isolated and original content. It should operate as a leading broadcaster by encouraging Knowledge, Entertainment and Participation based programs

The goal of a public broadcasting organization is to broadcast content that is distinct from the market interest and political interests. This is because the content determines the identity of any public service broadcast among the general public.

Public service broadcasting is conducted from public fund which is mostly collected from the fees paid by the consumers. Therefore, such broadcasting services should be largely guarantee editorial and operational freedom. Since it is considered as an essential component of a democratic political system, it must fulfill the crucial communication needs of the society and the citizens.

The pluralistic concept of political issues, the voices of marginalized and vulnerable groups on socio-economic issues, editorial freedom and the right to free speech, protection of cultural funds, promotion of national unity and self-respect, dissemination of creative practice and success stories should be prioritized. A strategy must be formed to overcome any kind of prejudice and pressure to increase the credibility of its content.

In order to transform Radio Nepal and Nepal Television into public service broadcasting, some basic concepts related to broadcast service, schedule and program layout or type needs to be modified. The purpose of such modifications is to increase the quality of programs and news for the public interest.
Editorial freedom must be ensured by law to encourage original contents that address broad public interest that are truthful, clean and balanced.

It must be committed to producing and disseminating programs dedicated to the promotion of national languages and diverse cultures, as well as to disseminating knowledge and information to the general public. Also, it is dedicated to producing and disseminating programs that promote understanding, tolerance and cordiality among followers of diverse religions and cultures. Similarly, it must fulfill its duty to build a democratic public circle by preparing factual and balanced news, news programs or other programs for the people of different classes and levels without any discrimination on the basis of gender, caste and religion. The public broadcaster should be developed as a public circle that reflects the diversity of Nepali society and pluralistic political thinking.

The priority must be given towards new views and thoughts with the aim of addresses the diversity of the society. An environment should be ensured where the burning economic, social and political issues of the society can be discussed and voiced smoothly. The success of a public broadcaster depends on its ability to provide a platform for the voices of marginalized or vulnerable sections of society. There should be a broadcasting policy that helps in empowering marginalized communities including women, children, castes, and tribes, linguistic and ethnic minorities. In the event of a natural disaster, epidemic or war, there should be a clear working procedure of efficient and committed manpower that can fulfill the needs of the general public.

Maximum participation of listeners / viewers in the production of content is an essential requirement of a public broadcasting organization. Currently, there is an arrangement made for the public broadcasting organization to receive the revenue collected from the license fee. Such broadcasters receive a tax deduction for advertising smoking or alcohol based products. In some countries, such broadcasting organizations have been provided expenses by passing the budget from the parliament. No matter how the resources are managed, the effective and justified participation of the audience in the production of the content of public service broadcasting must be guaranteed.
Public broadcasting should prioritize the needs of society and the common needs of citizens over individual rights. There should be balanced perspective in the political issues. Dissemination of relevant material at the local level on social and political issues must be encouraged. The goal of such content must be to address diverse tastes, interests and needs as well as the guarantee of an environment in which every citizen can express their views and beliefs.

Public service broadcasting must also meet the communication needs of minorities. National culture, language and identity are matters of public service delivery. In the public service broadcasting society, the diversity of ideas and perspectives is taken as a means of providing a place without discrimination. Thematically, such broadcasting organizations address the issues and voices of ethnic and minority groups, women, youth, children and backward classes.

After the transformation of Public service broadcasting, the responsibility of producing and broadcasting programs that reflects the diversity of Nepali society will be added to Radio Nepal and Nepal Television. According to the report of the aforementioned Task Force, some programs of both the media can be continued in the public service broadcasting with further modifications. But most programs need upgrading. For example, various national language programs, which are currently being developed with limited resources and means, may be unsuitable for public service. But other popular programs currently being run by both organizations will be given continuity.

Serious homework is needed on how to establish Radio Nepal and Nepal Television as a distinct broadcasting organization from other radio or television channels in the country interms of contents. On the basis of Nepali context, it is necessary to make an objective assessment of the news from the perspective of its importance and impact. There is ample room for improvement in the presentation of truthful, impartial and objective information and information on issues of civic concern and public importance.

Public service broadcast programs do not necessarily compete with commercial channel programs for commercial purposes. However, this does not mean that public service broadcasting will not take into account the beliefs and expectations of the audience. Popular public service broadcasting should make every program useful for the general public, putting the public interest first. Without the goal of public interest, there is no justification for the continuity of broadcasting. But, without the audience and viewers, the goal of true public interest cannot be achieved. There are examples of declining number of viewers and listeners of many public service broadcasts in the world due to failure to inform the general public on various topics or provide new knowledge through interesting programs.

A report by the Media for Peace Project launched in 2013 with the support of JICA, Radio Nepal states “… In order to promote harmony, to produce and broadcast practical, educational, informative, developmental and healthy and entertaining programs based on national culture using available modern technology and to create clean public opinion through quality, balanced and credible presentation”.

After the transformation into public service broadcasting, Radio Nepal and Nepal Television have to increase the volume of domestic production to fulfill their obligations. At present, when we examine the programs including news on Nepal Television, about only 25 percent of the content is produced internally. Radio Nepal has been producing about 75 percent of the programs including news. Radio Nepal has categorized its programs in various national languages and literature and culture in its category of popular programs. In addition to comedy series on Nepal Television, national language programs and agricultural programs seem to be considered significant.
Notable or popular programs of any kind currently aired on Radio Nepal or Nepal Television are the basis of popularity of both the media. The continuity of such program contributes to the distinct identities of the two broadcasters. One way to strengthen the faith, trust and confidence of general public is to produce unique and original contents.

5. Concerns of staff and journalists
Public service broadcasting institution should comprise of official staff union involved in matters of professional rights of employees. The union should be responsible for the rights of the employees.
After the institution of the Public Service Broadcasting Foundation, there should be a human resource policy and an effective department to implement the policy to create an environment of maximum work satisfaction by encouraging and motivating the employees from both Nepal Television and Radio Nepal.

At present, the employees working in Radio Nepal and Nepal Television should be given the choice to decide whether or not they want to continue their service in the public service broadcasting institution in view of the growing nature of the organization. All other employees engaged in technical, administration or program front should get the opportunity of voluntary leave along with the prescribed basic service facilities.

In the new environment, it should be ensured that the current employees who are ineligible for the prescribed positions as per the requirements of the public service broadcasting should be given compulsory leave with the basic services and facilities. The said Task Force had projected that about 2,000 employees, journalists and technical manpower would be required to run the new institution.

At present, Conditions of service for the Radio Broadcasting Service Development Committee Rule 2057 B.S. provides for the provision of pension fund in Radio Nepal. But, the pensions are provided on a monthly basis in similar way as the ad hoc employees are paid. Subsidy fund is being operated in Nepal Television. If uniformity is given to these funds, uniformity in the post-retirement facilities of the employees is possible.

Public service broadcasting would be a dream comes true for the Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal. Strong political will is needed to complete this initiative. Although, subsequent governments have made paper commitments to fulfill this national obligation after the People’s Movement-II, unfortunately in reality, Nepal will have to wait until the Broadcasting Service in Nepal is truly realized.

The writer is a campaigner for public media in Nepal for last two decades.
Published on 10 August 2020