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Nepal Center Marks 25 Years Amid Growing Crisis for Democracy

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Already suffering from shrinking readership due to the proliferation of social networking platforms, the legacy media in Nepal was hit by the COVID pandemic, says the veteran journalist Kunda Dixit. Image: Shutterstock

Editor’s Note: GIJN is proud to mark the 25th anniversary of one of our original members, the groundbreaking Centre for Investigative Journalism — Nepal. The Nepal CIJ was the second nonprofit investigative newsroom in Asia (following the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1989). Since the Nepal Centre’s launch, its members have shown how a dedicated nonprofit model can not only survive in the tough media environments of South Asia, but also thrive and have major impact. Here, veteran Nepali journalist Kunda Dixit, a Nepal CIJ co-founder, reflects on a quarter century of fighting the good fight.  

It is an honor to be asked to speak at the 25th anniversary of the Centre for Investigative Journalism – Nepal here today.

On the one hand, it is happy event. But on the other we are also reminded about how much older we have all become. It has also been 25 years since I returned to Nepal after ending my nomad media days.

From my association with the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), we were inspired to start a similar center in Nepal. Indeed, CIJ – Nepal became only the second investigative journalism center in Asia when it was set up in 1997. We invited PCIJ’s Sheila Coronel to Nepal to train Nepali journalists on the principles and practice of investigative journalism.

The best test that investigative journalism is impactful is when it speaks truth to power, and it rattles those that wield it. PCIJ ended up forcing the country’s presidents to resign after exposés of abuse of power.

The Centre of Investigative Journalism – Nepal may not have ousted a prime minister here, but in the past 25 years it has constantly rocked the boat, exposed wrongdoing and injustice, and afflicted the comfortable.

The freedom of press is like a rubber band, you have to stretch it to make it work. Likewise, media independence can only be protected by its maximum application.

That is why we have to make a distinction between day-to-day reporting and investigative journalism. In-depth coverage requires patience, difficult and dangerous work, time, and resources.

Attending a press conference or transcribing a media release alone will not protect press freedom. It is also difficult to justify standing up for the independence of media if it is partisan, or succumbs to clickbait.

An investigative journalist’s job is to expose wrongdoing. After that, the other institutions in a democracy are supposed to take over: law enforcement, the court system, elected leaders.

In Nepal and across the world, even in countries with long traditions of pluralism, tolerance and rule of law, democracy today is in retreat. When all three pillars of democracy (legislature, judiciary, and the executive) are tottering, it is up to the fourth estate to prop up the superstructure of a state.

It does this by being impartial and fair, and shining a torch in the darkness where those in power hide secrets that are in the public’s interest. Freedom of press is not just the freedom of a journalist, we in the media are just custodians of the citizens’ right to information.

A panel at GIJN’s IJAsia conference in Kathmandu, in 2016, co-hosted by CIJ – Nepal. From left: Umar Cheema (Pakistan), Yasuomi Sawa (Japan), Ritu Sarin (India). Image: GIJN

It is not easy doing investigative journalism in Nepal. The country may not be small, but it has a small elite in which the centers of power, businesses, and media owners overlap. Everyone knows everyone else, and they often scratch each other’s backs. This is why the art of media questioning is not as developed in Nepal.

Already suffering from shrinking readership due to the proliferation of social networking platforms, the legacy media was hit by the COVID pandemic. Lately, the rise in fuel and food prices following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further undermined the media’s advertising and sales revenue.

The collapse of the media’s business model has coincided with the crisis of democracy in our neighboring countries and around the world — at a time when investigative journalism is needed more than ever to widen the media’s independence.

Nepal’s broadsheets do not compete with each other, but with Facebook. Television channels should not be thinking in terms of television rating point anymore, because their actual revenue rival is TikTok.

The world’s biggest and oldest democracies used to treat the rule of law as sacrosanct, but by manipulating the internet with troll armies and bot factories, demagogues are getting themselves elected. Populism, ultra-nationalism, racism, and hate speech make an explosive potion, and by fanning them, they are able to mobilize citizens disenchanted with traditional politics.

Trump may have been defeated, but Trumpism is alive and well. In the Philippines, history has come a full circle with Bong Bong Marcos getting himself elected by weaponizing the social web.

About India, the less said the better. It is a lesson for us in Nepal not to take our freedoms for granted. One of the last remaining independent television channels, NDTV, has just been bought by a Modi crony and the world’s second-richest man, Gautam Adani.

The legacy press has no choice but to become much more savvy in using internet platforms, and if necessary, even borrow some of the tricks of the trade. The mainstream media must be in the business of immediately correcting falsehoods, rumors, and “alternative facts.”

Newsrooms must have the digital visual skills so that investigative stories are not just told, but shown. Journalism has a new role and responsibility: to analyze, interpret, and explain raw, live information on the net, and to offer solutions at a time of spreading cynicism and despair worldwide.

The old media is not dead yet, and we need it more than ever to tame a wild new media that is reaching adolescence.

Additional Resources

Curbing Asia’s Free Press: Propaganda Has Limits

Investigative Resources for Tackling Authoritarian Threats

How They Did It: Investigating the Trafficking of Girls from Nepal to the Gulf

Kunda DixitKunda Dixit is publisher of the Nepali Times, a weekly English language newspaper in Kathmandu. He is author of the media textbook “Dateline Earth: Journalism As if the Planet Mattered,” as well as curator of a widely admired trilogy of photobooks on Nepal’s civil war. He also teaches journalism at Kathmandu University.

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