Harsha Man Maharjan
Nepali media industry is in crisis, as it was never before. This crisis is the result of both the economic havoc created by the coronavirus and the lack of acumen of some media owners and managers. Media owners and managers were hand in hand during two previous crises, when they fought against the royal regime, and when there were "disruptions" created by press workers' union in publications. In the present crisis, this alliance has broken in many cases. This is time to talk more about remedies related to the crisis of Nepali media industry.
The present crisis is global in nature and its impact is total. Media industries in other countries are going through similar crisis, too. This crisis has laid bare the fact that media management is weak in these organisations. The disaster in Nepali media industry has manifested mainly in three forms. First, the revenue of news media has dwindled. There is no easy way to know about the expenditure and expenses of new media organisations, so we don't know exactly the impact of COVID-19 on these organisations. But Nepal Media Society, an organisation of some media owners and publishers, has projected that this year the revenue from advertisement and subscription will be one-tenth of Rs. 12 billion. Ranjit Acharya of Prisma Advertising, said that the advertisement market has decreased by 80 per cent after the lockdown.
Second, due to this, many print media that stopped publishing their print editions are focusing online. This conversion into digital-only media has forced journalists to take paid or unpaid leave. Printing press workers and distributors have also become jobless.
Third, some online media, local newspapers and some big publishing companies have decided to stop operation of print media. In early May, Nepalnews.com stopped its operation. Many print media in local level have been closed. On 26 June, Kantipur Publications announced that it was stopping its publications: weekly entertainment Saptahik, weekly news magazine Nepal, and monthly women’s magazine Nari. This decision affected the lives of more than 50 media workers. Similarly, Nepal Republic Media has suspended all its publications, except Nepali broadsheet daily Nagarik. In such condition, remedies related to COVID-19 crisis need to be discussed.
First, as the crisis has aggravated and journalists have lost their jobs, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) has requested the government to provide relief package. Other journalist associations followed suit, and the press release signed by 11 journalists associations demanded on 28 June for a special periodic relief package to self-employed media companies, small media companies and to journalists who lost their jobs. No doubt, the state has to support journalists and the government has to consult with these associations and discuss ways to provide some relief packages. As other sectors such as tourism, education, industries are also demanding relief package. Such packages should be provided to journalists who don't have safety net. These journalists associations need to discuss ways to distribute relief. Nepal Media Society has estimated that 50 per cent of the total human resources (about 200,000) involved in media sector will lose their jobs, if there is no rescue package. Similarly, these associations need to provide legal support to affected journalists. A report published by FNJ on 9 June based on the observation of media companies in 14 districts stated that media have ignored the provisions of Working Journalists Act, 1993 by not providing journalists with their minimum wage and the facilities mentioned in the Act. Such package will provide both economic and social safety to needy journalists.
Second, the crisis has shown that the state has to promote media in which profit goes to journalists. One of the problem with Nepali media system is there is domination of media companies where one or a handful of people pocket the profit. The concentration of media power in a few people who can use these media for both economic and political gains is harmful for democratisation of society and for empowering citizens. So, the government has to promote multiple models of media ownership such as cooperative, community, and public media in national, provincial and local levels. It is not that Nepal does not have such policy. In fact, National Mass Communication Policy, 2016 mentions that the state has to give priority to self-employed media and media with small investment.
Third, the crisis has also shown that we need measures to promote media transparency so that there is better understanding between media owners/managers and journalists. The placards displayed during the recent the demonstration organised by FNJ on 3 July in Kathmandu read: "Where is the billions of rupees worth profit earned by the media houses?” It is clear from this placard that journalists believe that media owners siphon off the profit to other sectors, drying up the reserve needed for crisis days. The present policy does mention that to promote democratic values, investment from legal sources and economic transparency will be assured, and the investment in the media without plan will be discouraged. Yet, as media scholars have criticised, the policy does not discuss laws needed for ownership and financial transparency. Had there been the provision of making public both income and expenditure of media organisations, journalists and media workers would have clear picture of the economic health of media organisations and there would have been better understanding inside media organisations.
Thus, this crisis is also an opportunity to push forward agenda to make Nepali media more equitable and transparent. It is time to discuss the modus operandi of media management, which keeps the betterment of their workers in top priority. Relief to the needy journalists, legal support, promotion of different models of media ownership and promotion of media transparency are some remedies Nepali media industry has to discuss profusely.
(Maharjan is a senior researcher at an academic NGO Martin Chautari and writes on issues related to media and technology.)
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