In locked down Nepal, print is still king

A front page Publisher’s Note in Kantipur on 4 April explaining why the paper was resuming its print edition.

After Nepal went into COVID-19 lockdown on 24 March, some of the country’s main newspaper groups stopped their print editions and went only-digital. But, with the likelihood that the lockdown will be extended beyond 7 April, some of them have restarted their hardcopy editions. 

Ironically, this is happening at a time when the Nepali public has migrated even more to digital media for information on the coronavirus pandemic and for updates on the lockdown. Digital portals have reported a big spike in page views in the past two weeks.

Nepal’s radio and television stations have continued broadcasting with skeleton staff in their studios with most reporters working, and even broadcasting from home. Journalists with special press passes are allowed on the streets for reporting assignments.

Kantipur Media Group, Nepal’s largest, stopped printing its periodicals including Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post daily broadsheets on 28 March, citing the limited movement of people and concerns of readers. However, the two papers resumed their print editions a week later on 4 April, saying it took the decision because the government was allowing essential services due to the relatively low caseload. 

Other broadsheets, including Naya Patrika, Annapurna Post, Nagarik and Republica never stopped their print editions, albeit with reduced number of pages and distributing mostly to subscribers. 

Shiva Gaunle of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) believes the resumption of hardcopy printing has more to do with competition between broadsheets, and the fear that stopping print would reduce their footprint.

“It is true digital media has even more reach during the lockdown, but the publishers seem to have decided that not having a printed newspaper has reduced their clout in Kathmandu’s corridors of power,” Gaunle says. “In that respect print is still king.”

Madhu Acharya of the media research group Sharecast Initiative agrees that despite the increasing reach of online portals and social media because of the rapid spread of data Internet through mobile phones, print still packs a punch — especially among politicians and decision-makers.

In a media survey earlier this year by Sharecast, many respondents said that although they were getting most of their information from the Internet, they were not reading newspapers and magazines mainly because they were not available. Acharya says this shows that the issue is not about print becoming obsolete in Nepal, but the problem of widespread distribution.

All broadsheets are still printing their hardcopy  editions in Kathmandu, albeit with reduced pages and print runs.

“This is essentially a competition between the major broadsheets to maintain their influence in Singha Darbar,” Acharya says. “by stopping the print edition Kantipur may have felt it was losing market share and its powerful agenda-setting role.”

Part of the reason some papers have resumed their print editions could be because of a major news story concerning allegations of kickbacks and irregularities in a $10 million Nepal government contract to import medical equipment from China in which the private contractor Omni Business Corporate International was implicated. Omni was reported to have insider links to powerful figures in the Prime Minister’s Office. In response, the Department of Health on 1 April said it had scrapped the deal, apparently on direct orders from the prime minister himself.

The matter took a dramatic turn when Prime Minister Oli’s IT adviser reportedly pressured Kosmos Biswakarma, the editor of the Nepali language news portal KathmanduPress to delete a story on the alleged scam. When the editor refused, he got his  software company Shiran Technologies use its access to the site to bypass the editor and remove the story. 

In a strongly-worded statement, 21 editors denounced the underhand censorship, saying: ‘This outrageous action has cast serious aspersion on Prime Minister Oli’s IT adviser Asgar Ali, and the parent company of F1 Soft Shiran Technologies. This action is against constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of press, and we demand an immediate investigation and punishment of the guilty’

Responding to the lockdown, Nepal’s FM radio and television stations have also asked reporters to stay home, and record their interviews via Skype. “We only have three technicians and a security guard at the station, the rest of us work from home,” says Gopal Guragain of Ujyalo 90 Network. At Kantipur FM, head of news Pawan Acharya says he is maintaining physical distancing by allowing only four out of the 14 staff into the newsroom at any given time, and journalists and technicians get two days off after each day at the station. 

Nepali Times and its weekly sister magazine Himal Khabarpatrika stopped their print editions the week of the lockdown, and most of the political tabloids did the same. In India, Outlook magazine suspended its print publication as did The Times of India Mumbai edition, although other newspapers have not stopped their hardcopy the papers are not reaching subscribers because vendors and distributors are staying home.

Himal Khabarpatrika editor Kiran Nepal says that his magazine’s readership has more than tripled since going digital-only and the magazine is putting special emphasis on explainers and analysis about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Nepal. 

However, even Nepal adds: “But I have to admit that the influence of an actual paper magazine is still apparent. There is still power in print because the powerful read it.”

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