The picture of Nepali media is that of a beleaguered profession, marred by financial hardships, job insecurity, health and safety hazards, feelings of betrayal, and low self-esteem, reports Arun Poudel. And the raging COVID-19 pandemic all the more gives a vantage point from where this picture becomes stark.
Work more hours. Never take weekends or holidays. Don't necessarily expect your employer to pay you. If you need to survive, do a side business. But you have to deliver what you are supposed to deliver. And, whether there's a pandemic or not, keeping yourself safe is your own business – hardly ever look to your employer or the authorities for any support.
As cruel as it sounds, this is the true story of a large majority of journalists today.
Ask any news professional working for a 'big' media house for a candid account of their working conditions, and you will get a picture of a beleaguered profession, marred by financial hardships, job insecurity, health and safety hazards, feelings of betrayal, and low self-esteem. It is a picture where journalists consistently find themselves in a survival mode. The raging COVID-19 pandemic all the more gives a vantage point from where this picture becomes stark.
The pandemic has put journalists in a tight spot, from where they constantly fight at least two major battles: striving to accurately report the unfolding crisis as well as struggling to keep themselves safe and secured.
The pandemic has put journalists in a tight spot, from where they constantly fight at least two major battles: professionally, striving to gather reliable information and to report accurately to their audiences; and for self-preservation, struggling to keep themselves safe as well as to get paid for their work.
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, many journalists have braved hazards of the frontlines to bring first-hand stories, photos and videos to the public, often working without safety measures or protection. Worse, many have been denied even their basic pay. Others have been fired from their jobs, forced to resign, or sent away on unpaid leave. Those who were not paid for months, had either to give up hopes or fight a hard battle to get their money.
Fighting for the pay
Since the beginning of the lockdowns, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), the umbrella organization of news professionals from across the country, has received 285 complaints about delayed salaries, forced dismissals, and forced leave without pay, among others.
"Most of the complaints are related to big media houses of Kathmandu," says Ram Prasad Dahal, secretary at FNJ central committee. "The respective houses have either addressed or have initiated action on almost 80 percent of the complaints. This would not have happened without FNJ's intervention."
"If you do not fight for your dues, you won't get it," adds Dahal.
Evidently, media houses are facing losses as both advertisements and sales revenues have gone down due to the pandemic. Media owners claim their major source of income — advertisement revenues — have gone down by up to 80 percent. But protesting journalists think it only gives an excuse for the owners to lay off staff and withhold their salaries.
"Big media owners transfer all profits from their organizations to their personal accounts under this or that pretext. And when revenues go down just for a month, they stop salaries and start firing people," remarks Dahal. "This is due to an utter lack of organizational system in the media houses. They are running like a private proprietary business where the owner is all-in-all."
Interestingly, the Nepali media sector, with an estimated total investment of NRs 200 billion, has never been transparent about its finances. Even the government is in the dark about the profits and losses of the sector— and its owners.
So far, some 285 journalists have lodged complaints about delayed salaries, forced dismissals, and forced leave without pay, among others. Most of complaints concern big media houses of Kathmandu. Journalists have led a series of strikes and sit-in protests demanding action.
Ask Subida Guragain, a journalist from the eastern Sunsari district, how hard it was for him to get paid for his works. He used to be a night desk editor for Nagarik daily when the COVID-19 crisis started.
"My office had been delaying monthly salaries for at least three months, long before the pandemic. And then, as if they were waiting for the right opportunity, COVID-19 happened," says Guragain. "I was compelled to travel from Sunsari to Kathmandu during the lockdown, to join office. But when I reached office, I was asked for a COVID-19 clearance and a two-week quarantine. Then, all of a sudden, I was given a dismissal letter for no reason whatsoever."
"Forget severance pay or anything, I was not given my monthly salary for all those months," adds Guragain. "They used COVID-19 as an excuse."
After his repeated efforts to get his money failed, Guragain sat on hunger strike on September 21 in the premises of Nepal Republic Media (NRM), the publisher of Nagarik and Republica dailies. On the third day of the strike on September 23, NRM director Shova Gyawali paid him a visit and the office gave him a check of NRs 172,500, clearing his dues. Interestingly, a few days later, NRM issued a press statement claiming Guragain's strike was meaningless as he was no longer with the publication. The journalist fraternity slammed the statement as NRM's failed face-saving move.
Nonetheless, Guragain's strike prompted a series of strikes and sit-in protests in late September in several of Kathmandu's big media houses: Kantipur Publications, Kantipur Television, Karobar, Annapurna Post, Nepal Aaja, and Nagarik, among others. Journalists also staged protests outside the Department of Information and Broadcasting, and the prime minister's residential quarters at Baluwatar. Salary payment and job security were the major demands. Social media was abuzz with photos and videos of the protests. Protests have continued after a 2-week respite for Dashain holidays in late October.
The issue of payments and job security had earlier come to the notice of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Issuing a press release on June 6, the commission had said: "If journalists did not get remuneration and were displaced from profession, people would be deprived of the freedom of opinion and expression, the right to communication and the right to information guaranteed by the Constitution."
Clearly, neither the government nor the media houses paid heed to the constitutional human rights body’s warning.
Media closures and cutbacks
When the nationwide lockdowns started on March 24, most privately-owned newspapers stopped printing. They remained off-the-press from a few days to a few months. When they resumed, some cut down their pages. Broadsheet dailies of 16-24 pages were reduced to 8 pages. However, they kept on updating their online portals with news contents throughout the lockdowns.
Kantipur Publications, the biggest private media house, closed down Saptahik, its weekly youth tabloid, Nari, a monthly women's magazine, and Nepal, a weekly newsmagazine. All three were popular niche publications. It later resumed publication of Nari, the other two have been permanently closed down.
The country’s largest vernacular daily Kantipur and its sister English daily the Kathmandu Post resumed publication after 10 days of suspension. Both were limited to eight pages when they resumed. The NRM permanently stopped printing its English-language daily Republica and its two specialized publications —Sukrabar, a weekly tabloid and Pariwar, a monthly magazine.
The government-owned dailies Gorkhapatra and the Rising Nepal continued publishing throughout the lockdowns, although their revenues plummeted drastically. Gorkhapatra, the Nepali-language daily, saw a daily drop in advertisements from three million to a half million rupees.
The Himalayan Times, another major English-language daily, remained off the press for a few months. Weekly news publications Nepali Times and the Annapurna Express also moved to digital-only formats. Most of the electronic and broadcast media also cut down on content as both operational revenues and staff spiraled down.
The Nepal Press Institute (NPI) reported that the production of print, video, audio, and online news content saw a marked decline across the nation due to COVID-19. In its survey conducted in collaboration with the UK-based Bournemouth University (BU), 55 percent of the 1,134 respondents reported a reduction in the number of print pages whereas 48.4 percent reported reduced print frequency. Broadcast, too, followed the same pattern. Some 51.8 percent of respondents from radio and 42.8 percent from TV acknowledged reduced production.
During the lockdown, closures or suspension of print outlets, or substantial cut in the volume of coverage, including at television and FM radio stations, became widespread. However, many outlets continued to update their online versions throughout this period. Meanwhile, experts criticized the closures as an unethical practice.
"Even Nepal’s blue-chip media houses – all based in the federal capital of Kathmandu – were suddenly struggling for survival and existence, and then the obvious happened," reported Freedom Forum, a media rights watchdog. "FM radios and televisions cut down on their news bulletins and program productions while the print reduced number of pages."
Disinformation also impacted the circulation of newspapers. Press Council Nepal, a government-appointed media ethics body, reported that a rumor made rounds in the initial days of lockdown that newspapers carried the virus. It was reported in the news that people did not pick newspaper copies left at their doorsteps by cycle boys. Printing presses too were closed for some time and some of the papers could not publish even when their publishers wanted to, the Council reported. Besides, there were shortages of newsprint and hikes in its price.
"As newspaper offices and printing presses were closed, the editorial staff, distribution teams, stationery shops and newsstands were all affected. So, the income earned from stand-sale also stopped along with advertisement revenues," the report stated.
The Press Council further reported that most of the radio stations in the country were facing financial crisis. According to a preliminary survey of 224 radio stations by the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, 75 percent showed decrease in regular income. They have been unable to recover outstanding dues from advertisements, public announcements, and produced programs. Among the functioning radios, about half (about 350) have been broadcasting online.
Meanwhile, media experts flayed the closing down of media as an unethical action. "It is not right to displace journalists from their jobs in the name of coronavirus," says Dr. Suresh Acharya, media educator and former chairman of FNJ. "Media owners have forgotten all the profit they earned through all these years. And, when there is a loss for a few months, they are closing down and rendering journalists jobless. It is not a good practice."
The closure of media houses and dismissal of journalists can weaken the media's role as a public watchdog, experts fear. "As media houses are forcing journalists to leave, there are very few left who could question government's misdeeds and irregularities," says Hari Bahadur Thapa, editor-in-chief of ekagaj.com. "This will weaken the entire journalism sector, which is not helpful for the country and the people." Thapa had quit as editor-in-chief of Annapurna Post after fighting the management for timely and full payment of staff salaries.
Layoffs and lost livelihoods
COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdowns have directly affected the earning of 40 percent of journalists, with more impact on females than males, according to a report published in late September by the FNJ and Sharecast Initiative Nepal. Two-thirds of journalists had difficulty meeting their basic expenses. Sixty-one percent of them used their savings, 45 percent cut down on basic expenses, 37 percent took loans, and 12 percent borrowed money from friends and relatives for survival, the report said.
About 10 percent of the survey respondents were considering to change their profession, according to the report "Effects of COVID-19 on Journalism". On the other hand, 2.5 percent media owners had either closed down or were in a mood to do so. More than half of the surveyed journalists thought getting new media jobs would be impossible if the situation persisted.
Nepali Times conducted an informal survey on 60 journalists in early September. Two-thirds of the respondents said they faced uncertainty about their careers.
According to a report by the Freedom Forum report published in August, as many as 38 percent of the working journalists across the country have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. The highest percentage was recorded in Gandaki (60) province and the lowest in Sudurpaschim (5). Number-wise, the highest number (1,600) was recorded in Bagmati province.
Fighting the virus itself
Nepal is known for its extreme vulnerability and minimal preparedness to disasters. This includes pandemics. The NPI/BU report showed that Nepali media is ill-prepared and ill-trained to face any disaster. It said that 66 percent of the 1,134 respondents had never received any disaster resilience training. Further, 4.2 percent of respondents were unsure if they had received such training. Of those who said they had received such training, 75.9 percent said they were inadequately prepared and 22.4 percent said they were not prepared at all. They cited the lack of follow-up training.
Notably, experts had long been pointing out the lack of disaster preparedness in Nepal. Even after the 2015 earthquakes, geophysicists kept warning that substantial seismic energy is still active below the Nepali terrain.
No surprise that everybody was taken off guard when the pandemic struck.
So far, more than 450 media people are recorded as having contracted the virus. Media watchdogs estimate the numbers to be higher. Most of them have recovered already; approximately 80 are reported to be actively fighting the virus at the moment.
"Barring some print journalists who can work from home, most of the media people are frontline workers in the face of COVID-19," says FNJ's Dahal. "Like everybody else, they suddenly found themselves in a chaotic situation. You can imagine the stress of having to work under the threat of an unknown virus, with no support and no money."
"No matter how much you try to save yourself, you have to go to the field. That puts you at risk," says Dahal. "You know, we are least prepared to handle any kind of emergency." He laments the lack of seriousness on part of the media operators and the government in keeping the news people safe.
"Journalists were forced to expose themselves to the crowds during reporting, with no personal protective equipment," says Freedom Forum in its report on the impact of COVID-19 on Nepali media. "Broadcast journalists were also forced to work in stations without maintaining social distance." Although some radio stations encouraged their staff to work from home, they lacked the technology and logistics to do so.
As expected, the risk was bound to translate into reality. When this report was published, more than 450 media people were recorded to have contracted the virus. Most of them have recovered already; approximately 80 were actively fighting the virus.
"We estimate the numbers to be more, considering the rapidity with which infections are being detected. And it's hard to keep track. We know only when the infected inform us," says Dahal.
So far, five journalists have died due to COVID-19.
Most media houses seemed to follow basic safety protocols. Journalists wore masks and used hand sanitizers in the newsrooms, either provided by the organization or bought by themselves. Reporters sometimes used plastic face shields. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was not used even during field visits. Most of the media operators and FNJ units organized COVID-19 testing for journalists at some point. Provincial and local governments supported local media operators and FNJ units in buying COVID insurance for journalists. Most of the national-level media houses bought insurance for their staff, which initially covered NRs 100,000 but was later reduced to NRs 25,000.
Fighting to inform
Throughout the lockdowns, media professionals suffered violations of their rights to be informed as well as to inform others.
In an egregious attack on the press, possibly originating from the high office of prime minister, kathmandupress.com's back end was tampered and a story was deleted from its portal on April 1. The story was about high-level corruption in the purchase of faulty medical equipment and safety gears for COVID-19, with involvement of the sons of deputy prime minister Ishwor Pokharel and prime minister’s chief advisor Bishnu Rimal. Shiran Technologies Pvt Ltd, developer of the news portal, removed the story due to 'pressure from above'. The tech company is run by prime minister’s chief IT advisor Asgar Ali.
According to the NHRC, 22 media personnel deployed for monitoring and collecting news were arrested during the lockdown. Issuing a press release on June 6, the Commission said that attacks, threats and insults to journalists continued during the period, and the government agencies showed a tendency not to provide information.
"The commission draws attention of the Government of Nepal to provide essential information to the journalists, stop attacks, threats, and insults on journalists, guarantee their remuneration and ensure easy access to information," NHRC added, calling on the government to adopt short-, mid- and long-term plans for journalists’ safety.
The crackdown was not limited to mainstream media professionals alone. In her June 3 statement, Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Nepali authorities used a stringent cyber-crime law to arrest a retired bureaucrat "who was critical of the government including its COVID-19 response."
"According to press freedom groups, there have been several cases of journalists detained while covering COVID-related news, incidents of journalists facing obstruction from authorities, and reports of threats and physical attacks against journalists," Bachelet said.
In the southern town of Janakpur, in Province 2, Radio Janakpur manager Shital Sah was threatened after airing a program “Akhada, Corona Special” on May 13. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Sah was accosted and harassed by three individuals. He suspects they were sent by provincial health minister Nawal Kishore Sah. In the radio program, he had described the carelessness of the coronavirus tracking center set up by a hospital in Janakpur.
Media watchdog groups have reported dozens of cases of misbehaviors, obstruction or vandalism, threats, and attacks or manhandling against journalists across the country during the lockdown. Control media coverage and intimidation of reporters by regional government officials have also been reported.
The international media rights watchdog said hostility toward media started right from the top. "The prime minister’s hostility towards the media has been accompanied by expressions of mistrust," RSF reported on June 8. Referring to a report in Kantipur daily, RSF wrote: "He told his communist party to keep its distance from the media and not leak sensitive discussions and information.”
Regional government officials have also tried to control media coverage and intimidate reporters, RSF said, citing the threatening messages sent by Dan Singh Pariyar, a parliamentarian in the northwestern province of Karnali, to Nagarik daily's reporter Nagendra Upadhyay after he reported that Pariyar’s wife had been driven in a government car at the height of the lockdown.
The watchdog Freedom Forum reported 56 instances of violations between March to August: misbehavior (15), obstruction or vandalism (13), threat, including death threat (18), and attacks or manhandling (10) against media people across the country during the lockdown. Province-wise, Bagmati and Province 2 saw the worst, with 15 and 14 cases of press freedom violation, respectively, followed by Karnali province, with 13 instances.
The lingering reforms issue
COVID-19 will remain here for at least some time, and so will the challenges it has created.
"Believe it or not, there is a real crisis for the media outlets that survive on market revenues. Most of them are not rich enough to keep their staff indefinitely when there is no business and no work," says Dharmaraj Bhusal, chairman of onlinekhabar.com, a major online news portal of Nepal. He also owns Himalaya Television, a national broadcaster.
Bhusal remarks that staff downsizing will be necessary when revenues plummet by 70-80 percent, adding that it should be done in an ethical manner, if at all.
"Of course, there are media houses with a history of not paying their staff. For them the pandemic may have given an excuse for layoffs and further salary delays," Bhusal says, "But there are others like Kantipur that used to give staff paychecks right on time before the lockdowns. They should not be put in the same basket."
The crisis for journalists and media outlets is real and so is the need for reforms. Owners emphasize ethical downsizing. Experts call for mergers, restructuring and a professional culture. And professionals continue to question the timing of the layoffs and deduction in salaries.
In any case, the pandemic has exposed financial vulnerability of both media operators and journalists. It's already long overdue that media operators thought of the sector in the long-term, remarks former FNJ chief Acharya. "Our media market is already oversaturated. You need to merge the numerous outlets and have a manageable number of strong media institutions," he recommends. "That way, they will be strong on advertisement revenues, and can sustain themselves in crisis situations like this."
But mergers are neither forthcoming, nor adequate. The crux of the problem lies in making media houses professional bodies with a sound organizational culture, Acharya adds.
"The market pie is limited. There should be a system to decide what we do when there are profits and when there are losses," says Rajan Kuikel, chief editor of Image Group that runs a television, two radio stations and an online news portal.
"Nepali media houses are often arbitrarily run by a single owner. They have to grow into institutions run by a system. Only then they can be sustainable," Kuikel adds.
Apparently, Kantipur, Nagarik, and other media houses have felt a need for reform, as journalists working there reckon. The only problem is that such reforms are limited to staff reshuffling instead of organizational restructuring. And they started by cutting jobs and deducting salaries when the pandemic struck. The panic it created on the working journalists backfired in the form of sit-in protests and social media campaigning. It was perhaps not the right time for the country to see its major media houses embroiled in labor mess.
"The way these media houses responded in the time of crisis does not bode well for the country," observes editor-in-chief Thapa. "It seems they tried to use the pandemic as an opportunity for staff management. It was not the right time to do so."
Considering their financial strength from businesses they run in other sectors, owners could have acted more responsibly instead of showing panic by cutting jobs and salaries, he adds. "Even if it were necessary, you could have done it during normal times."
"If the media themselves were seen panicking, all other sectors would be hit," concludes Thapa.
This story, published as part of the Media Foundation's COVID-19 Media Outreach Program, was made possible with the support of Humanity United. The views expressed in the article are those of the author.