Nepal should be open for South Asia

On World Press Freedom Day, Himal Media Mela examines state of the media in Nepal and the region

The Himal Media Mela 2023 sponsored by Ncell, opened on the World Press Freedom on 3 May in Kathmandu with practitioners from Nepal and the region examining journalism and how it can be meaningful and survive.

“Press freedom is not just for journalists, it is a right of every citizen. We journalists have to safeguarded it,” said co-publisher of Himalmedia Kunda Dixit in his opening remarks.

The theme of this year’s two-day Himal Media Media is ‘trust and introspection’ at a time when media has undergone a massive transformation in the recent years.

Himal Media Mela 2023
Himalmedia co-publisher Kunda Dixit giving his opening remarks. Photos: Gopen Rai and Suman Nepali

Legacy media and new portals alike are now vying for both readership and revenue with TikTok, YouTube and Facebook. And now with the use of AI in the newsrooms, there is a real question about the relevance of traditional journalism.

On the other hand, with the proliferation of mis- and disinformation, the public's trust in mainstream media is eroding rapidly. The pressure to be the quickest to disseminate news without fact-checking information hasn’t helped matters. 

Read also: Media as the custodian of the people, Shristi Karki

Added Dixit: “Nepal has entered a new decade, but we have more or less the same leaders, the same disputes, the same reactive media content that we have seen over the past two decades. Besides trying to find a new role for media in the age of AI, Nepal’s traditional press also needs to turn the gaze on itself.”

Himal Media Mela 2023
Keynote speaker Siddharth Varadarajan, Founding Editor of The Wire.

Keynote speaker Siddhartha Varadarajan, the Founding Editor of The Wire said the media is under great threats and challenges even as there is a greater consciousness of human rights and democracy across the world.

“Historically when democracy has come under strain and perished, it has because of the collapse of open, free democratic media,” said Varadarajan, giving next-door India’s example. “In Nepal, media freedom is seen as something sacrosanct. It is powerful that Nepal is a meeting place for Southasia when other countries are happy to close their borders to ideas.”

Himal Media Mela 2023

But just as social media and digital platforms have made it easier for the dissemination of news and content to reach more audience, technology has also allowed the government and censurers to further restrict and control media like the use of a spyware Pegasus for the surveillance of journalists.

Reporters and publication houses are also being increasingly harassed with defamation, sedition and criminal charges. Worse, they are threatened with physical harm. Many journalists in the region have in fact lost their lives for their critical voice.

Read also: Paradigm shift in Nepali media, Shristi Karki

But perhaps the biggest change for mainstream media today is to sustain itself. Journalism today has an even more important role in safeguarding democracy and press freedom against populist demagogues but media companies are at their financially weakest. And a financially weak media is not politically independent.

Himal Media Mela 2023

"The less media rely on government favours, large companies and sponsors, and more on your subscription, donation and contribution from your readers, viewers and the civic society, the more it will be sustainable and credible,” added Varadarajan who set up The Wire to be a non-profit digital platform.

He also warned media and civil society in Nepal not to be complacent. “Don’t take Nepal’s openness for granted, guard it and protect it,” he said. 

Media and coverage of evolving geopolitics

In the first panel of the day, speakers Sudheer Sharma of Kantipur and Kanak Mani Dixit of Himalmedia delved into increasing interest of India, China and now the United States in Nepal as the battle for regional dominance intensifies.

First panel of the day, Media and coverage of evolving geopolitics.

This has further heightened the importance of how Nepali media balances its coverage with India-Sino and US-Sino relations arguably at its most fragile.

“In Delhi, Nepal and our media is seen as pro-China whereas when I was in Beijing, I could see that the Chinese thought we have been Americanised following the ratification of the MCC,” said Sharma who is the editor of the largest daily in Nepal, Kantipur. 

He added: "But at a time when there are more challenges due to the increased geopolitical tension which needs to be tackled with zeal and alertness, the ability of our organisation and leadership seems to have dininished."

Sharma also stressed that Nepali media’s coverage of geopolitics focused too much on political diplomacy and not much on economic diplomacy even as Nepal tries to export its hydropower surplus to India.

Himal Media Mela 2023
Speaker Sudheer Sharma, editor of Kantipur.

The installed capacity of hydropower projects in Nepal is expected to cross 3,000MW this monsoon and another 3,200MW will be added to the grid in the next three years.

With domestic consumption at just 1,600MW, the only other alternative is to export surplus, except India doesn’t buy power from projects with Chinese investment or contractors. In fact, India is edging China out of Nepal’s river projects as water becomes a strategic commodity.

“Media is raising these issues to an extent but that discourse is never really brought to the light because of politics and our parties,” said Kanak Mani Dixit, co-publisher of Himalmedia. “Nepal is the oldest nation-state in South Asia, but Nepali politicians have often put Nepal’s geopolitics on the line for their interests.”

Himal Media Mela 2023
Speaker Kanak Mani Dixit, co-publisher of Himalmedia.

Ahead of the 2024 elections in India, speakers also warned of politicised use of Hindutva in Nepal and that Nepali media needs to be alert so as not to let the pincer of Hindutva enter our politics and society.

“Nepal is too diverse a society to be defined by one form of Hindutva or the other but we have groups who wish these sentiments to flourish in Nepal but it is up to the media to take this up,” remarked Dixit.

He added: "Nepal is a meeting place for South Asia and has to remain an open space for itself and for the region. And the media has to realise this soft power of Nepal."

Data Journalism

Data is crucial for good journalism. Paper trails and data mining have led to some of the biggest money laundering exposes. Data supported journalism has led to constructive discourse in a longer term.

"In any developing or developed economy, availability of data, its quality and depth help citizens as well as policymakers to form democratic decisions. Data allows better discourse, it is critical when forming unbiased and objective judgement in any issue" said guest speaker Govindraj Ethiraj of IndiaSpend and BOOM FactCheck as he presented various case studies to prove the point.

Himal Media Mela 2023
Govindraj Ethiraj of IndiaSpend during his session on data journalism.

IndiaSpend found out that 12PM at noon has the best air quality in India for a walk, mornings were the worst much like in Kathmandu. They also found that odd-even vehicle rule did not actually help reduce air pollution in Delhi.

Ethiraj also briefed the audience about an on-going project to measure methane emission in India, which they found out was among the biggest polluters in India with the country being the fourth biggest emitter.

But oftentimes, it is hard to access data, either because they are withheld or because it is very time consuming to crunch all the numbers and clean them up. Other times, there is simply no data.

Himal Media Mela 2023

“There will be data gaps especially on critical matters but let us ask for better quality data, more data but equally use the data that is already there in your hand to build high quality journalism which is really critical in this time and day. And project that data in a way people can make sense of it,” added Ethiraj.

Given the importance of data in storytelling, there is often a question of whether the story comes first or data. Said Ethiraj: "Truth is, they go together. As much data, as many stories. This aids us in making unbiased opinions and objectives, presents a clearer picture, and empower people with better understanding."