Every sphere of Nepali society has started to endure the socio-economic and psychological impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The media industry, which has been growing constantly since the 1990 political change, is now reeling from unprecedented crisis owing to the virus outbreak. Here the findings of a nation-wide survey, presented last week in the capital, are considered as a baseline for understanding how the virus has affected Nepali journalists and the media industry as a whole. The print media became the first victim of the virus. Most of the newspapers publishing from outside the Kathmandu Valley folded hard on the heels of the announcement of the nationwide lockdown on March 24. Obstacles to the mobility of journalists and other human resources started to trigger difficulties in running the media institutions. In the capital, several media houses suspended their publications while others stopped giving salary to their staff for months. Many daily newspapers, more than half a dozen television stations and a couple of FM radios in Kathmandu delayed in providing salary to their staff. Most of the newspapers that closed down with the first round of lockdown have not yet resumed their publication.
Restriction The first lockdown had come into effect on March 24 and ended on July 21. The Nepali media persons were fully involved in fulfilling social expectations through disseminating the credible information about the pandemic. The key problem of the media sector at that time was the restriction on mobility which had resulted in two-fold effects. First, it has, to a large extent, also constrained journalists' access to the incident sites and news events. Second, as the opening of news stalls, and services of street vendors and home delivery were forbidden, the circulation of the newspapers was greatly affected. Consequently, the readers had to rely on their digital editions. By the third week of lockdown in April this year, a team of Federation of Nepali Journalists visited at least 18 media houses to take stock of difficulties facing the working journalists. During the visit, the FNJ mainly identified the problems of the reporters, who had to visit the field to collect the news. The monitoring team, formed by the FNJ, found six incidents in which eleven media persons were harassed or restricted while covering news. By the time, a couple of big media houses had already begun to lay off journalists and technicians. They also started to force the journalists either to stay on unpaid leave or work part-time. This tactic has signalled that a substantial number of journalists would lose their job in the days to come. However, during that period, the media persons were much more focused on spreading the message that the coronavirus can be defeated through the adoption of strong health precaution. After the two-and-a-half months of the lockdown (during the second week of June), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) observed that Nepali journalists faced severe economic challenges with increased incidents of non-payment of salary, layoff and salary cuts. Organisations such as IFJ and FNJ expressed their concern over the financial hardships faced by journalists and urged media houses to support them. However, the problems have remained almost the same and the pandemic continues to hit the country that has been under the strict prohibitory orders since August 19. If we consider the media industry as a tree, its leaves were not green as before the outbreak of the coronavirus. Pages of the newspapers have been reduced. Production of radio and television programmes has also greatly been affected. Media outlets suffer from the scarcity of contents because of the absence of events in the various walks of life ranging from sports to entertainment to politics. In terms of revenue, the media outlets are in acute crisis. Thus, the journalists are feeling a sense of insecurity. Recently, a report of a nation-wide survey conducted among 1,134 journalists working in print, online, broadcast, and radio, as well as news agencies highlighted the adverse situation of the Nepali media. Senior journalist Prof. Ram Krishna Regmi states that the Nepal Press Institute and the Bournemouth University of the UK have presented the testimony of the Nepali journalists from the grassroots level. The survey has recorded their mental state and experiences, and the changes to their working practices amid the fear of the coronavirus. It has also recorded their agony, professional challenges and complexities. The rapid response report reveals that COVID-19 has affected the mental wellbeing of a majority of journalists in the country. Around 83 per cent of them felt an increased sense of vulnerability while 75 per cent and 62 per cent suffered from anxiety and grief, respectively. About 25 per cent reported that they experienced depression. As much as 74 per cent of journalists have been impacted financially, with 38 per cent having to face pay cut, and 6 per cent losing their job. Likewise, about 66 per cent of journalists have reported significant changes to their working hours: 24 per cent were working longer hours, 24 per cent fewer, and 18 per cent on weekends.
Intervention The report demonstrates that the pandemic has affected print and broadcasting media significantly in Nepal. The report shows the painful reality of the Nepali media industry – rapid decline in broadcast, video, and audio productions. It has stated that some newspapers have folded and shifted to digital format while some others reduced their size drastically. The media sector is in the urgent need of intervention so that it can be able to overcome the ongoing existential crisis. Failure to timely intervention will give rise to the unprofessional media outlets. Fragile and dependent media will lead the society to a point where the linkage among different walks of public life becomes weaker. It will eventually lose its much sought-after role of watchdog in the society.
(Dr. Aryal is associated with the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication of Tribhuvan University.)