The debate about democracy on a local level is marginalized in the media today. Everybody seems concerned with what the Prime Minister says but seldom puts focus on what the mayor of their local government thinks. It is against the backdrop of this absence of focus on local democracy that we see a rise of electoral dictatorship in the country. Constitutionally, we should be more concerned with what our local leaders are doing because their decisions affect our lives as much as the decisions taken by our national leaders – if not more. Our local leaders have the freedom to decide 22 areas of our public life which they decide ‘exclusively’ and another 15 areas on which they decide ‘concurrently’ with the province and federal government. Such huge fiscal and administrative power calls for greater accountability from the public.
Rooted attention to local issues
I remember reading many local newspapers for my daily dose of news in my former school in Butwal. In those days the national dailies used to reach Butwal late in the afternoon. A significant number of local newspapers ensured that different voices were included as local news was given ample space. These local newspapers were the lifeblood of reportage as minor events were also brought to the public’s attention. This helped ensure that local leaders were accountable to the local communities they served. There was a dynamic relationship between the local newspapers and the general public. Our concerns were focused on our immediate conditions and surroundings, and this concern created pressure for local leaders to be accountable for their decisions.
Local issues/agenda are dying from the public imagination
Currently, the public imagination in Nepal is preoccupied with national issues and local issues do not have the space to attract the attention they deserve. Reportage of local issues is limited to a daily broadcast of a few local events in the evening news. The decreasing attention given to the local issues and local newspapers harms the practice of local democracy more severely than people realize. It is hard to expect that local news will find space in print or digital media by competing with national issues. Complicating this expectation is the fact that the online media space is often dominated by sensationalism and trolling, rather than fact-based reporting. If there is a move towards creating national media houses by merging local news actors, it may prove disastrous for local issues. A big media house may be an efficient system but it does not allow for a diversity of views – a minimum requirement for any democracy. A big media house will also arguably be easier to manipulate via contributions of funding through advertisements, government notices and other legal measures. For local democracy to prosper, media ownership and editorials should be diverse and locally rooted. This will drive focused public attention on local issues and help make local leadership more accountable to local people.
Local media struggling for mere existence
Local media organizations in Nepal, especially print media, are finding it difficult to survive these days. Talk to any editors of local media organizations, and they will tell you how difficult it has been for them to raise funds for operations and salaries. Although the COVID-19 pandemic is the most recent challenge to take the blame for this, the situation worsened long before the COVID-19 outbreak. These media organizations have reduced their full-time correspondents and as a result, they are not able to include local issues in print. An easy way out seems to be to fill the first pages with national issues, an editorial, a few features on inside pages and advertisements in the later pages. Run through any local newspaper, and one will encounter this pattern.
Part of the problem is that the costs of news production are very high in comparison to the prices that consumers pay. Additionally, many media organizations around the world have not conceived new and diversified revenue streams that would make modern newsrooms sustainable. These organizations have to run advertising campaigns whether they like it or not, just to survive. Some local media organizations have benefited from running notices of local governments and provincial governments but these notices and business advertisements often reduce the space for news. Further, when I pay Nrs 5 for a local newspaper, I don’t even cover the costs of printing let alone the costs of news production. As a result, editors have real less space for local news and reportage as advertisements and government notices are often a high priority. Reputable news correspondents based in local bureaus also cost money and they are critical factors to ensure the diversity of opinions in local news coverage. With the lack of innovative new business models for newsrooms, these are the parties who appear to have suffered the most.
Can online media provide the cure?
While the consumption of news through digital platforms has increased in recent years, their effects when it comes to local issues is negligible. Local news has to compete with national issues in most of Nepal’s online platforms, losing out more often than not. Social media has of course presented a wider reach, but it’s consumed with comment and not always reliable. Social media is also good to relay information but not necessarily in producing news items. Also, when earnings are dependent upon views, likes, and shares, generating sensationalist content is always preferred. This makes me feel that the proliferation of online platforms may not be able to ignite the interest needed in local issues and hence their effect in promoting local democracy is limited.
Revive local media
Our best bet to revive local democracy is strengthening local media – whether paper-based or online. It is true that government notices and advertisements will be important funding sources for media organizations, but they must also resort to a subscription model as part of a diversified business model. The government should support media organizations to adopt a subscription-based model that includes newsletters, social content and more. At the local level, generating news should not be strictly seen from merely a cost recovery perspective. The positive effect of having diversity in news coverage and reportage will far exceed its financial burden. Local media organizations must give greater attention to local issues and let local issues set the agenda. Editorials on local issues must be more frequent. Reportage must cover local events with as much interest as national events. This revival of local media organizations is the only hope of making our local-level democracy live long and strong.
Raju Sharma is Accountability Lab Nepal’s Provincial Coordinator in Lumbini Province.