Media Fails to Uphold Its Role as Watchdog

Bhanu Bhakta Acharya | 18 January 2021
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The government tried to stop criticism by threatening and spreading fear among journalists.

The year 2020 was unprecedented. The coronavirus pandemic severely affected all walks of life, including the media and journalism. Nepal was no exception and experienced the same predicament owing to the lockdown and mobility restrictions. Consequently, the media and journalists were sternly constrained from upholding their watchdog role by accessing information, gathering news in the field and working in the newsroom. In such a dismal situation, no public policy or programme was introduced to rescue the Nepali media and normalise the everyday performance of journalists. Instead, the government’s hostile actions further weakened the media.

Most of the businesses that provided advertisements to various media outlets were shut due to the pandemic. The Advertising Association of Nepal estimated that approximately 80 percent of the revenue was lost in print media, 70 percent in radio and television, and 45 percent in online news portals. For the first time since 1990, the Nepali media struggled to survive due to the advertisement loss.

To cope with this extraordinary situation, many media houses suspended or closed their media outlets and downsized their employee numbers. At least 18 broadsheet newspapers published from the capital city suspended their print publications and resumed after weeks and months with limited coverage and circulation. Some shifted to a digital-only format, adjourning their print publications, and some others were closed forever. Several radio and television channels slashed their productions and broadcasting owing to the increased restrictions on the mobility of journalists and a hostile working environment in the newsroom.

A situation assessment report of Freedom Forum Nepal revealed that at least 3,190 journalists across the country lost their jobs, and thousands of others worked at a lower wage or without pay. The condition of journalists affiliated to various local and regional media houses in different districts was even worse. Many of these victim journalists organised protest programmes against their media houses for their rights as per the Working Journalists Act, but their endeavours were mostly unsuccessful. The Federation of Nepali Journalists and other media stakeholders urged media houses to stop job cuts, work without pay or underpayment, and requested governments to provide special relief packages to journalists and media houses. The government, however, turned down such requests since officials were aggressive and intimidating towards the media and journalists for their critical coverage relating to corruption and mishandling of the Covid-19 crises.

Silencing criticism

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and some of his Cabinet ministers constantly attacked the media and journalists for their critical reporting against the government's inadequate efforts in handling the coronavirus-related crisis in the country. There were several reports published against the government's involvement in corruption when purchasing medical aids or disregarding people stranded on the Indo-Nepal border for months without basic support. After one such report about stranded workers walking for up to 15 hours a day to reach home, Oli blamed journalists and the news media for orchestrating the news content to defame the government mechanism because he had not received such information from local government agencies. Oli further warned his party leaders to maintain their distance from media persons for 'not leaking sensitive information' and maintaining the confidentiality of government activities and strategies.

Journalists across the country were threatened and intimidated on different dates during the lockdown for giving unpleasant and critical coverage of the government's involvement in financial and policy corruption, and failure to handle the consequences of the stay-home order. One of the severe intimidations against the free press was observed when a published article of the was removed on April 2 by an alleged involvement of the prime minister's IT advisor. The removed article was about the involvement of senior government officials in purchasing expensive medical equipment for coronavirus treatment from China.

Prior to this incident, Kosmos Biswokarma, editor of the news portal, had received multiple phone calls from different sources requesting him to remove the article because of immense pressure from 'above'. The Federation of Nepali Journalists and editors of different news media condemned the unauthorised removal of the published article as a very serious incident against the free press guaranteed by the constitution. The article was eventually reinstated after two days, but no serious inquiry from any government agency was made to stop this sort of future interference in media content.

During this period, the role of Press Council Nepal was debated for its supposed involvement in silencing government criticism on digital platforms. Following the council's recommendations on different dates, at least 121 online news portals were either closed or blocked in Nepal for their supposed role in promoting misinformation and fake news about the coronavirus and government efforts. Media stakeholders, including Freedom Forum Nepal, criticised the council's role in obstructing online portals as an intervention against constitutional guarantee in the name of making the press accountable.

The government also mobilised various pro-government political factions and actors to run hundreds of bogus social media accounts for attacking or harassing journalists for their critical coverage about government performance. Some social media actors were rewarded with high-level government appointments merely for defending the government's inabilities and inactions. Using all these tactics, the government tried to stop or minimise media criticism of official agencies and leaders of the ruling party by threatening and spreading fear among journalists.

Watchdog role

From the press freedom perspective, the year witnessed the devastating impact on the media and journalism, gravely weakening their watchdog function to make the government accountable to the public. While the consequences of Covid-19 severely limited journalistic practices and undertakings of press freedom, the government’s aggressive and hostile activities to silence media criticism against its responses in handling the pandemic was ubiquitous. The government, rather, seemed willing to see the media and journalism section become weaker and less able to uphold its watchdog roles.

Furthermore, media houses were not found accountable for implementing the Working Journalists Act (2007) nor showing empathy to journalists and their families on humanitarian grounds during such an unprecedented time. The pandemic helped us comprehend that the Nepali media was more fragile financially, professionally and institutionally than it was assumed to be as one of the robust industries thriving since 1990 in terms of quantity, variety and coverage.

Bhanu Bhakta Acharya is affiliated to the University of Ottawa, Canada.

This article was originally published on The Kathmandu Post.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.