Can the media hold duty holders accountable?

Round table or town hall style of discussions could be organized by media outlets to extensively discuss with ministers and high-ranking bureaucrats what they are doing to deliver and what challenges they are facing.

Simone Galimberti

  • Read Time 5 min.

With a new federal government and provincial cabinets now in charge, people’s expectations are rising. Will the newly elected officers now sitting in executive positions be able to deliver? Will the demands for change be finally met with better services and more effective and cleaner governance?

As the country enters what could become a new era of political change, a transition to a more modern, youth led polity, a number, perhaps very limited, of positive developments in the service delivery, might happen. Certain rules and regulations might be finally enforced with some tiny improvements in the way public schools, hospitals and transportation offices operate.

Yet, at the same time, few doubt that the citizenry will still have to deal with a good dose of frustrations and disappointments. Recently I have been reflecting on ways to sustain and support what I see as a gradual process of change.

Bridging the divide between the elected and voters is one of the most intriguing and difficult challenges for a democracy, not only here in Nepal but also elsewhere, even in political settings with more consolidated institutions.

Role of media

While existing institutions can be more transparent, accessible and inclusive and while new forms of co-governance based on deliberative democracy might gradually appear, can the media play a bigger and more useful role in holding the government to account?

It is not that the media in Nepal aren’t already playing an important role. After all, we have success stories in terms of freedom of expression and there is a considerable space, often taken for granted and unappreciated, for criticism towards the political class. Still amid reporting stories that denounce malpractices in governance and report on occurrences of corruption and mismanagement, there is a sort of void probably caused by a lack of continuity in follow up of a story and in a deeper coverage of it.

Can media outlets across the country do a better job at unveiling the truth and help raise the levels of accountability across policy making? Can the existing forms of reporting, already excellent in many ways but also lacking resources and perhaps constrained by an environment that while free still lacks the eagerness and will to go after the big shots through better investigative journalism, be enhanced for a better public service?

Like-minded newspapers can come together with joint initiatives to help keep the state and officeholders responsible and accountable.

I had the chance to sit down with Narayan Adhikari, Director and Co-founder of Accountability Lab Nepal. Accountability Lab is trailblazer in co-creating new forms of bottom up public participation in policy making and Narayan is probably one of the best persons to talk with about finding new ways to make governance more open and transparent.

He also feels that the media can play a much bigger role in terms of holding the state, at all its levels, accountable. After all, Narayan shares with me, the foundation of good journalism practices lies on people themselves to report and tell local stories–what is also called ‘citizen journalism.’

What struck me during our conversation is our total alignment in enabling not only citizens to contribute to reporting, a commitment that Accountability Lab has been mainstreaming throughout all its work, but also the idea that media outlets could collaborate more among themselves in this attempt of elevating the level of transparency in the country.

For example, are there newer and better forms for the media to join forces to track the so-called Minimum Common Program that binds together the current coalition in power at federal level?

Round table or town hall style of discussions could be organized by media outlets to extensively discuss with ministers and the high-ranking bureaucrats on what they are doing to deliver and what challenges they are facing in their quest for providing better services to the people.  To even make such discussion forums more effective and powerful, a consortium or a coalition of likeminded news outlets could come together to run these events.

It is true that, at least partially, there are some TV shows that are trying to hold those in power accountable.  These can be, as we know, powerful platforms to allow people to be more interested and hopeful but we also need longer and less hyper forms of engagement that can take place with debates in the “public square” that should be as much as open to and inclusive of the public.

People’s involvement is essential for these exercises of civic engagement. We can imagine some of these not only in fancy hotels but also outside, in the communities where the real commoners can more easily attend and participate.

Certainly, organizing such forms of debate through joint collaboration of media houses require foresight and vision but also investments, a commitment to enhance the conversation around public interest.

Yet as important as the “will” among editors to undertake such efforts, we also need to ensure that media outlets are better equipped with investigative tools and expertise. This is a point that Narayan highlighted a lot during the  conversation. Even the best forms of reporting that are happening now still struggle to meet the international standards.

Because it must be evidence-based, Narayan explains to me, it takes a lot of time to gather all the information and it’s really expensive. It is almost impossible, considering the financial struggles that all the news media are facing in the present circumstances, to be able, for an editor, to provide her determination to uncover the truth, to put together the indispensable resources for an effective and high quality investigative journalism.

Still even with limited resources, follow up stories must be pursued and this is something Narayan was feeling strongly about it.

Imagine a story that underscores shortcomings within a ministry. The piece is able to reach out to some of the officers in charge of the file in question who usually come up with the standard answers either blaming someone or explaining without details how the work is progressing.

These pieces are good but not good enough and more must be done to return to the issue.

Together for a cause

Collaborations between media houses can also happen more informally and this is a very interesting proposition from Narayan. Even without the institutional buy-in of their editors and owners, journalists could simply help each other in sharing information and updating. Even if something in this regard already happens, the work of journalists could be made much easier and more effective if some forms of joint reporting can be agreed upon.

An immediate consequence of this, according to Narayan, could also be that the morale of journalists could be enhanced if such “support” systems were in place.

Another form where news outlets could collaborate together is the creation of a joint scorecard system where, periodically, say every quarter, scores are assigned to the ministers and the most senior public officers. Media houses could come together to set the criteria and have in place in their respective newsroom staff dedicated for the exercise.

Tracking the issues and topics, according to Narayan, could be evenly divided among the media outlets participating in the exercise, making it more practical and also based on the respective in-house expertise within the “coalition”. I saw something similarly done by India Today that assigns points to the performance to the ministers at Centre and it can be easily replicated and even made more comprehensive and inclusive.

Perhaps Nepal still does not have that level of acceptance of criticism from the side of policy makers that might feel annoyed and irritated by such assessments. This could be one more reason for like minded newspapers to come together with joint initiatives to help keep the State and office holders responsible and accountable.

“Investigative journalism is more important now than ever” shares Narayain at the end of our conversation. He wraps up with the following thought, something I couldn’t agree more with:

“Many societies around the world are closing. Politics is becoming more divisive. Rights are being curtailed. Corruption is increasingly undermining fair and equal systems. Malign influence from states and other actors is undermining citizens’ trust in their governments. There is a lot to do, but I am convinced that if all media come together we can begin to push for the kind of change we’d like to see.”

Opinions expressed are personal.