Time to protect journalists to save journalism

Nepal has enforced lockdown to contain COVID-19 since March 24. Most of the sectors have been badly suffering due to the stay-at-home order. Many media houses are closed down while journalists are facing tough time to continue profession. The journalists are facing both financial and health risks.

However, the role they have played to keep people informed in this crisis is admirable. In this connection, Freedom Forum organized a Zoom meeting with its representatives from seven Provinces including the Kathmandu Valley on May 16, 2020.

Opening the program, FF Executive Chief, Taranath Dahal, said the program was organized to share the problems faced by journalists and know about the media situation in the provinces. At a time when every sector in Nepal, as in other countries, has witnessed unprecedented crisis, how media is coping up the situation is worth sharing. Views of the FF representatives would help seek measures to face the situation by assuaging personal and professional risks, he hoped.

Bikram Niraula, Province-1

The local newspapers shutdown publication in the initial days by arranging official meeting among the editors after the market was shutdown. There were more than 30 local daily newspapers, most are now closed. They are showing dismal digital presence. In regard to FM, there are more than 100. But the hard news and bulletin are drastically declined.  Although they are functioning, it is difficult to run more with limited resources.

After one of the journalists from Udayapur tested positive for COVID-19, others are afraid to continue their job. Most of the journalists are unemployed at the moment as there is no income. They can’t pay their reporters. The initiative to perform medical checkup to journalists who reach public offices like hospital is being started. The mainstream media in this province are facing existential crisis. They have not been able to reporting by visiting rural places.

Rajan Singh, Province-2

There is comparatively higher number of COVID-19 cases in Province-2. Recently, five journalists have tested positive for COVID-19. Most weekly newspapers are shutdown within the 1st and 2nd weeks of lockdown. Radio stations have been doing good work in terms of reporting and informing people. The main problem is that the reporters and employees in FM and Radio have been migrating to their villages as they are unable to pay for their accommodation in the city. 60% journalists have been jobless in Province-2.

The local people also don’t want to be interviewed as they are scared that they may contract the virus themselves. There is taboo around the relation between COVID-19 and journalists, now-a-days.

Another challenge is that there is not much safety equipment for the journalists in the media houses. The lack of sanitizers and face masks are additional problems. The lockdown itself has largely restricted the media persons’ movement. There is not much reporting environment in the local levels.

Except coronavirus case, the news like development and corruption only make 10% of the coverage, as it is impossible to report other news. 90 to 95% of the print media have stopped functioning.

Those infected with coronavirus are provided poor facilities in hospital.

Ram Mani Dahal, Bagmati Province (out of Kathmandu Valley)

Except Kathmandu Valley, all the papers have stopped- most declared closure, some hasn’t yet. Although some media wanted to restart their work, sudden surge in coronavirus infection discouraged them to resume media.

To the best of my knowledge, most journalists have not received their salaries since December 2019. Since then the lockdown prevailed. There isn’t much advertisement for the media, which makes it difficult for them to sustain.

The news and bulletins have drastically decreased, so there is just one sided flow of information. Actually, there is the need of reporting on all aspects relating to the crises.

In the initial phase, although the safety gears were given, basic facility has also stopped. That’s why, the reporters fear collecting news as well. In the personal and social level, fear is deepening indeed. That’s why they are reluctant to report now-a-days.

Local and Province governments are slow to react in terms of sharing all side information on the crisis. The government has been delaying payment to the media in relation to health related advertisement.

Seeing the huge financial crises, the investors in present media may shift to online media.

Ashok Dahal, Bagmati Province (Kathmandu Valley)

Print, Sale and Circulation of print media is at severe risk. As many as 502 weekly newspapers have also stopped publishing in the Kathmandu Valley alone. Only few dailies are publishing but in little content- pages cut down. The ones which are printing are also able to manage 8 to 12 pages. Minimal advertisement/revenue has hit hard the print media.

Good practice is the Online Khabar news portal has made quarantine in the office space itself so they have minimal contact with the public and family members.

Retrenchment of staffs (unpaid leave) is likely to be adopted in different newspaper. To face the financial crisis, some media have kept few staffs and paid only 25% salary to the current employees. More than 50% revenue/advertisement decreased in media. There is prediction that if the lockdown continues for more time, 50% of the news agencies/media houses will close down.

The watchdog role of media will be in risk as the trend of hiding the mismanagement of the government on COVID-19 has been increasing. The government has forced the media houses to delete the news on COVID-19 mismanagement. Some are arrested for writing and others threatened. A journalist at Radio Nepal was arrested and threatened for writing Facebook post on a political leader.

Cyber bullying to the journalists who write about the government irregularities and mismanagement is increasing drastically.

The journalists who are working are in vulnerable situation. They may be contracted the virus at any time. Journalists are also facing the challenge of misinformation and fake news.

Lockdown has been an opportunity for the journalists to utilize IT for work.

Rajan Upadhyay, Gandaki Province

Almost all the media houses stopped publication of print editions and those who continue have reduced pages owing to difficulty in circulation. Few media have maintained their e-papers maybe for classification purpose.

Stringers are the most affected because most of those have lost their jobs. Reporters at national media too are forced to stay on unpaid leave. Few journalists who have to visit field and office are at risk of infection. Most of the media persons here use Zoom meetings for expert views, news reporting and international updates.

Obviously, like other sectors media is also facing huge financial crisis which has ultimate effect on staff’s salary and revenue collection from the market as it is closed since two months.

Sudeep Gautam, Province 5

Currently, this Province has been an epicenter of COVID-19 with more than 110 cases in Rupandehi, Kapilvastu and Banke districts. However, no journalist has been infected till date. Following lockdown (March 24), all media houses stopped publication but lately almost half of newspapers (3) started their publication but with reduced pages. Radio stations have also decreased their bulletins.

Journalists working at radio stations prepare their bulletins at home and visit office to read news.

On FoE violations, two medical practitioners were suspended from their job for posting on their social media pages.

We, few journalists, here also prepared sanitizer and provided it to the media persons working on field at reasonable cost.

Laxmi Bhandari, Karnali Province

The Province has not detected any positive case for COVID-19 till date. But, more cases of press freedom violations were recorded during the period of lockdown as compared to other provinces.

Some 150 media houses are closed in this Province now.

Like other provinces, media here are facing tremendous financial problems. Some friends are even planning to change their profession at this time.

Min Bam, Province 7

Print media are must suffered. All print media are closed down, but 70 FM radio are still in operation.

There are no safety materials to journalists.

Although few media have resume business again, they are having a hard time to sustain.

Most journalists here are reporting to Kathmandu centered media, and as the lockdown is prevailing more in Kathmandu, they are having a hard time to sustain. Small media are facing problem even to office rents.

Seeming poor status of media, some local levels also provided food stuffs.

Summing up the event, Executive Chief Dahal thanked the participants and pointed out the need of collective efforts to stay safe at personal level and continue the profession in the crisis. “Journalism has important role in crisis. And to save journalism, journalists must be protected,” he stressed.