Increasing penetration of the internet and proliferation of mobile devices have been transforming the media industry into digitalization. According to NTA mobile penetration in Nepal is exceeding 100% internet penetration reaching more than 70 %. In this reference, the Nepalese media landscape is changing constantly and traditional media outlets such as print, audio and visual platform are transforming themselves into digitalization.

It is said that citizen voice and public opinion are increasingly shaped by media content they consume which helps to keep civic space wider, open and accommodative. Technological advancement and industrial constraints of the COVID-19 crisis both compelling media contents and outlets to transform in both size and platform.  This transformation also posed challenges in traditional media and their presence.

In this context, Freedom Forum organized a dialogue on “Digitalization of Media Industry and Civic Space in Nepal” on 16 October 2020. The main objective of this event is to discuss the shift of the media industry and outlets into digital platforms and assess its impact on the future media landscape, public opinion, civic space and fundamental freedom. The major participants of this event were media professionals, CSOs working with civic space, media and information, academia and researcher from the related sector.

Madhu Acharya, CEO at Sharecast Initiative, a media survey organization, shared the survey data about media, media consumer, trends of using media content and audience trust in Nepal.  The increasing growth and advancement of information technology have changed the media consumption pattern of the audience. A recent survey shows that the biggest number of audiences relied on internet-based platforms along with social media for local, national and international news. The trust level of the audience towards internet-based media is very low comparing to traditional means of media. Being a very trustworthy medium of news and information, print media are losing their audience gradually. In addition, newspapers are being circulated in a very trifling number because of its decreasing demand/reader. Having the high trust of audience traditional news media such as radio and television are not the prime source of information for larger media audience though.

It seems that the high consumption of online or internet-based media content does not denote a high level of trust among the audience. So, ensuring trust among the audience and differentiating itself from other internet-based social media platforms are the major challenges of online news media.

The data of internet user and media outlets are easily obtained nowadays than before. It will be helpful to forecast future media landscape and digital civic space. Flooded online news portals are just begun as digital walls rather than a comprehensive new platform.

Prateek Pradhan, Editor at Barhakhari.com, opined that digitalization allows interactive news on digital space which is developing at a slow pace in Nepal. He further expressed that COVID-19 has expedited the process of decline of print media but not helped online as vice versa. The advertisements have drifted not to online news portals but to social media and google.

Only a fraction of the custodian right of freedom of expression and civic space shifted. Civic space seemingly expanded with digitalization and with the advent of social media. Every individual is empowered with the power to influence / all individuals are a media house in themselves with a smartphone and the internet. Though the largely preferable news source, online media platforms have yet to work hard to win the credibility editor Pradhan added.

He further expressed that we need to be cautious that the enormous range of social influencers emerged chaos in the media landscape. The anarchy of information, misinformation/disinformation, and loss of credibility are the major reflection of this development. Taking this bad aspect of the internet the authority exploited the new technology and platform for culminating the presence of critical voices and news portal. The government or other regulatory bodies needs to recognize and enlist every platform as a news organization (if the user wants it that way). If not, the press will die a slow and painful death leaving anarchy.

Senior Journalist, Dhurba Adhikari highlighted the connection and ties between the traditional and digital media that portray the place for voice and empowerment of general public. Digitalization of media outlets helps to empower citizenry, meanwhile, he stressed that access to digital technology and the internet alone doesn’t denote empowerment. It needs literate, skillful and quality access to the internet media platform to make influence in public space. He further said that the digital divide is the major challenge in Nepal that only ensures the verities of platforms and access to the empowered and zero or partial access to the voiceless and downtrodden. The digitalization of media industry with the existence of such divide also shrunken the civic space for voiceless. Besides this, digital access to media is more expansive than manual and print so state should focus to minimize the gap of digital divide for assuring equal citizen space in democracy.

Binod Dhungel, Former Editor at Himalayan Television said that digitalization of media is the need of the time and COVID- 19 rapidly push digitalization further than expected. Future of traditional media is in crisis because of rapid growth of internet based media. Large number of audience get information from online news portal though it is hard to distinguish mainstream and other media and even the online media themselves couldn’t feel mainstream news medium. Credible source of media need to retain skillful journalists with good benefit and working environment and also needs a good business, revenue as well as advertisement for better survival. Credibility is the major crisis of online media platform.

Editor of Sikshak daily, senior journalist Rajendra Dahal stressed that the problem lies in journalism practice not the media outlets and its form. He further questioned the control of digital media content as public domain as comparing to the content of print media which easily become a part of public domain after dispatch.

Prabesh Subedi, Former President of Online Journalist Association said that the revenue model is the major drivers of news industry( digital news industry) that can be sustained with different modality –aggregated subscription based, separate subscription based etc. He illustrate the Guardian, New-York Times and others are following the same path. Subscribe users are increasing day by day which can generate required revenue for online platform. This model may also fit in in Nepalese context in future.

Kapil Kafle, Editor at Nepal Samacharpatra wondered that he would love to be in the generation where he too could increase followers in mainstream media which is now declining. Public space is expanding via social media and internet platform by increasing followers and subscription. The legacy of weakness in mainstream remains the same in online media too. The weakness is still facing by new media as they have same journalist with same understanding and spirit. The owner interest of media industry should not be reflected by the news coverage. Fair play is must in every sort of journalistic practice.

Bhagirath Yogi, Journalist: COVID-19 forcefully pushes forward traditional media into digital platforms. Though, there is no convincing model of revenue generation to sustain digital media yet. This epidemic badly hit the media industry too. It has terminated number of journalists’ jobs in private and community media. Only government media PSB are continuing their fullest presence in the time of crisis. So, we must focused on Public Service Broadcasting model with digital mode for assuring better civic space. Beside this, capacity building work must cover digital and multimedia technology content for enhancing journalist capacity for better skill online.

Charan Prasai, CSO and HR Activist, expressed his worries about ongoing information and media anarchy in digital platform along with flooded misinformation that could be translated into a control oriented media governance. He further said online media platform with ill intention may be abolished themselves for the time being. Though he claimed that digital media is helpful to promote digital democracy and civic space.

President of ACORAB, Subash Khatiwada opined that the changing media means, modality and news variation is the reflection of time though he claimed that audience interest of choosing media is still inconsistence as recent research report says. Nevertheless, mere big number of media consumption does not guaranty the trust. The number of online media is increasing so as the consumer, but the credibility and trust level is still fluctuating. In such a crisis time as well normal time too community media would be a part of increasing community voice and space in governance. But, sadly we are unable to set the basic standard and indicator of practicing community media in Nepal. Sustaining community media needs skillful journalists and local interest news and content.

Harshaman Maharjan, Media Researcher, express wonder that we are almost unknown about the number of publications and circulation of the newspaper in Nepali print medium so, we can’t estimate the big picture of media and its audience now.  Digitalization of media and other social media platform widen the scope of readers to put their concern as media content. So, no need to be limited to express readers concern in ‘reader’s letter’ of certain newspaper.

Concluding the event, General Secretary of Freedom Forum, Dharmendra Jha believe that this discussion was needed. Digital media has great scope with certain limitation and challenges. Having said that, he added the government is imposing controlling laws and policies on media, journalist and curtailing the essence of Freedom of expression. He recalled Tobby Mendel idea on social media platforms as they provide news and information though it lacks editorial requirement and process, so that’s not considered as a news source in real sense.  Attraction, credibility and access are major condition of digital media that only boost the actual media notion in holistic way. He further queries the data manipulation in various contents of online media platforms declines credibility in the news media. Online medium is flourishing with the time, but if we should pay to read the online content then what could be the new scenario of online news portal, he questioned.

The discussion was moderated by Taranath Dahal and Sanjeeb Ghimire, was attended by 45 participants. Out of 45 participants, there were 5 females in the event.