Pandemic stress grips Nepal’s journalists

An empty Nepali Times physical newsroom this week as editorial functions are distributed to journalists working out of home. Photo: NEPALI TIMES

Binaj Gurubacharya was in full protective gear, and stood apart from the crowd to observe riot police clash with protesters at the Machhindranath chariot festival on 3 September in Patan. 

As the Nepal correspondent for the international news agency Associated Press for the past 25 years, he is used to covering conflict and violence. But reporting on Covid-19 has been a completely different kind of professional hazard.  

“No story is worth risking your life for,” said Gurubacharya, whose news stories from Nepal’s war, earthquake and political upheavals have been used by the media all over the world.

Reporters like Gurubacharya cannot do their work sitting at home, they have to be right there to witness events first hand. And while he can stand back to look at events unfold from afar, photojournalists and videographers have to get as close to the action as possible. Which is why more than 40 journalists across Nepal have so far tested positive for the novel coronavirus.

But the pandemic has affected the work of journalists in other ways. An informal Nepali Times poll through a written questionnaire of nearly 60 journalists this week showed almost half as having their salaries cuts, and most said that job insecurity, financial strain and working from home had hampered their motivation. 

Although journalists are allowed to move about with their press passes during the past six months of lockdown, most work out of home because they have elderly relatives at and do not want to risk spreading the infection. Many respondents said this had increased pressure on them to turn in meaningful stories for their readers.     

Worries about jobs, getting salaries on time, the risk of infection during reporting, as well as maintaining high journalistic standards have added to the mental stress faced by journalists. Two in every three respondents in the survey said they faced uncertainty about their careers.

Nepal's journalists are also on the frontlines, Nepali Times

A Kathmandu Post journalist giving a swab sample for PCR test in August. Photo courtesy: SHRUTI SHRESTHA

Ramesh Bista of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) sounded busy and distracted even during a telephone interview this week while describing how overwhelming it has been for many of the union’s members. 

“We are trying to help journalists, while at the same time also negotiate better terms with their owners and for some kind of relief. However, most media companies decided to cut their losses too early to save themselves, and did not address the welfare of their employees,” Bista says. 

One of the first high profile casualties of the crisis in Nepal’s media was Hari Bahadur Thapa, the editor of Annapurna Post daily, who resigned in May, citing differences with management over salary cuts and layoffs of his colleagues. 

“I could not be enjoying the perks while my news team suffered, I had to quit,” Thapa told Nepali Times. Since then, there have been many other layoffs and resignations. 

Thapa agrees that some media companies used the Covid-19 crisis as an excuse to cut costs by laying off employees. He says: “The management could have continued to pay salaries via their other investments, but many of them did not display basic morals and learn humanitarian standards.”

Journalism is not a crime..., Namrata Sharma

Many journalists who filled out the questionnaire for the survey spoke off the record about how their work has changed. One reporter wrote: ‘Journalists should get their pay on time and other facilities whether it is a pandemic or not. Media houses cannot curtail the rights of journalists on the pretext of the pandemic.’

At a time when the media’s role is more important than ever to disseminate information to the public about preventive measures against the coronavirus, to correct falsehoods especially on social media, and to prevent panic, it is the media companies themselves and reporters who are fighting for survival. 

With people locked up at home, the use of social media platforms has shot up. While most of it is for entertainment apps like TikTok and YouTube, there are also many dubious sites spreading rumours and unverified information.

“There is a lot of news in the mainstream press also that has caused confusion and panic, and that is because we cannot get hold of sources or government officials, and telephone conversations will never bring out originality and depth as a field report does,” says Janakraj Sapkota, an investigative journalist at the daily Kantipur.

Shooting a lockdown, Nepali Times

Indeed, nearly all respondents said working from home, they were not satisfied with their own journalistic output. Of the nearly 60 journalists surveyed, 50 said they suffered Covid-19 fatigue, and reporting on the daily statistics of the number of new cases and daily fatalities was becoming monotonous. 

There is another aspect of their work that is stressing out journalists: becoming easy targets for online trollers. Many reporters, especially women, say they have faced much more abuse and backlash for their stories than they did before the pandemic. 

Sabina Shrestha, reporter at the portal, Setopati, suffered that first hand for her reporting on Rato Machindranath last week. “I don’t know why people have become so angry, the hate mongering tweets are toxic, but I personally don’t let it affect me. For us journalists, we should just avoid such platforms and not let them get at us,” she says.

Nearly one-fourth of the respondents in the survey said they got little support or feedback from their editors. Partly, this was because the reporters are working from home, but there appears to be a communication gap with the desk.

‘It's becoming more one-sided, we don't know what our senior editors want, and how they see our articles and what they think about it,’ wrote one reporter. ‘Often times, it's only when something goes wrong that we get to hear from them. There is no editorial direction or guidance.’

We put that to the editor of Nagarik daily Guna Raj Luitel, who replied that editors also have their hands full with editorial and managerial chores, but underlined the importance of good two-way communication with reporters. 

“The reporters are working under a lot of stress, which is why the editor’s role is even more important. We have to help them get connected to their sources, and ease their workload,” Luitel told us.


Selected comments from the Nepali Times survey questionnaire:

‘We journalists at the moment are frontliners, earlier, we used to meet people, have a long conversation/discussion the issues to be covered. We could actually have a face to face conversation, which means we could grill them and ask follow up questions. We used to travel places and meet new people. We used to attend seminars, training, and discussions. After Covid-19, we are confined in a room.’ ‘As a journalist, you want to be on the ground speaking with your sources and witnessing the issue you are reporting on first hand. Covid-19 has greatly limited our ability to do so,’ wrote another reporter. ‘Now we have to take calculated risks. This affects not just the quality of our work but also our motivation level. But the story needs to be told, so we adapt and use the resources available.’  ‘Before, it was more engaging and the possibility to do stories was endless. Now, we have to stay in our homes, seek ideas and only do stories that are possible during the lockdown.’ ‘On most days, I feel like we have been grounded, as we don't know which offices are open and which are not. We don't know the timings of people. In an office space, it's easier to get in touch with sources more easily because you can map them through discussion and on the basis of who may know whom. But when working from home, you spend more time looking at your phone and messaging people and waiting to hear from them so that you can finally reach your source. And most people prefer talking over the phone or the internet, but the connection is always a problem.’

Read also: Lockdown puts Nepal's media in intensive care, Raju Baskota