An independent media plays a vital role in upholding democratic processes and the rule of law. For the last thirty years, World Press Freedom Day on 3 May has provided a chance to remind governments of the importance of press freedom and to reflect on professional ethics in the media industry. In a country like Nepal, without a long history of media independence, emerging technologies have facilitated a rapid expansion of new platforms in recent years. This rapid growth has led to many positive outcomes. Fearless reporting now exposes human rights violations and gender-based violence, holds state actors to account, and protects the rights of marginalized people.
However, there remains a serious gap in Nepali media in terms of representation of women and members of marginalized communities. Studies have generally shown that the media is not inclusive in either newsroom employment or media content. The mainstream media has been unable to feature perspectives, ideas, stories, and lived experiences of historically marginalized people including women, ethnic and religious minorities, sexual minorities, and people with disabilities.
Research by International Alert Nepal shows that little has changed in this direction. Women account for under 20 percent of journalists and under five percent of the most senior positions. The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) estimates that 75 percent of the newsroom workforce comes from the Khas, Bahun, Chhetri and Thakuri castes, which make up only 30 percent of the population.
Media houses have not employed women and members of marginalized communities in the newsroom and their policies do not compel them to do so. This unwillingness and lack of incentives, coupled with the lack of job security in the profession and government policies, is a root cause for women and members of marginalized communities not joining the media sector.
The women journalists who responded to our research team were of the view that women journalists are treated first as women and then only second as journalists. They reported a prevalent mindset that women’s issues must be raised only by women. None of the women journalists said that their newsrooms are inclusive in terms of gender or ethnicity. This appears to stand in direct contradiction to Nepal’s constitution, which promises gender equality and proportionate representation.
Inclusion is the key foundation of Nepal’s peace process and democratic polity. This is made clear by The Comprehensive Peace Accord, signed between the Nepal government and the rebels, which served as the foundational document for the federal republic polity of Nepal. The parties to the accord agreed to “carry out an inclusive, democratic and progressive restructuring of the state in order to address the problems related to women, Dalit, indigenous people, Janajatis, Madheshi, oppressed, neglected and minority communities and backward regions by ending discrimination based on class, caste, language, gender, culture, religion, and region.” It is a concern that what was promised 17 years ago is yet to become a reality in many sectors of Nepali society, including the media.
Inclusive Nepali media is an important means for vibrant democratic practice ensuring human rights, gender equality, rule of law and sustainable peacebuilding. It is vital to ensure that diverse perspectives and the lived experiences of minority and marginalized groups are heard, because it will have a multiple chain effect. Inclusive media will bring out a wider range of voices, stories of suffering and grievances of different communities will be reported, which will make state actors more likely to heed and address their concerns. In the long run, this will contribute to sustainable peace in Nepal.
So how can a media environment be supported to respect the right to freedom of expression, gender equality, inclusion and peace?
Media houses have not been able to attract women into the sector due to a lack of job security, gender-friendly working environments and decent remuneration. Maternity leave is usually unpaid if granted at all. There is no precedent or pathway for a woman or member of a marginalized community becoming an editor-in-chief.
Alert research has shown that, with the right policies, the gap in representation of women and marginalized communities can be addressed. For example, the state-owned media in Nepal are more inclusive as they are obliged by government policy to ensure inclusion. With strict implementation of Gender Equity and Social Inclusion (GESI) policy, it will be possible to ensure inclusion in the private sector as well. The government could enforce rules of inclusion on the private sector, by linking media licenses to inclusion policies.
Media stakeholders recognize that inclusion needs to be addressed. By capitalizing on this opportunity, Nepali media can thrive, facilitate a healthy democracy and contribute to a truly sustainable peace.
Rabina Shrestha, a gender equality, justice, peacebuilding and rule of law expert with extensive experience working on human rights, transitional justice, media rights and rule of law in Nepal, is the Country Director of International Alert Nepal. The article was first published in Peace News.