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Nepalese media struggles to survive amid pandemic pressure

Lekhanath Pandey Kathmandu
July 3, 2020

While independent media outlets flounder amid mass revenue losses due to the nationwide lockdown, the Nepalese government has turned its focus to boosting state-run media. Lekhanath Pandey reports from Kathmandu.

A Nepalese youth holding the national flag of Nepal braves the water cannon during a protest near the Prime Minister's official residence
Image: Reuters/N. Chitrakar

Dhruba Simkhada, 52, was working as an opinion editor at Nepal's best-selling newspaper, Kantipur, until April, when he was asked to take a month of unpaid leave.

He is one of the longest-serving opinion editors the paper has seen over its 27 years in circulation. On April 20 the publication told Simkhada and 40 other journalists to take the unpaid leave as the company was facing severe financial pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent lockdown measures.

More than two months have passed, and he is still waiting for the call to resume his work.

Read more: Rajdeep Sardesai: 'Corona has reminded us what news is supposed to be'

Struggling to pay the bills

Simkhada has been able to recover about 50% of his $500 (€445) monthly salary, following pressure placed on the publication by trade unions, including the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ). However, he says he can't survive with just half his salary. As a father of two children, his entire family depends on his earnings.

Simkhada's expenses include paying for a rented flat in Kathmandu, as well as for the costly school fees for his two primary school children and his wife, who is studying at a university.

"My basic expenses were hardly adequate with my income even during normal times," Simkhada told DW. "Now, my situation is like to ‘be or not to be.' Even if I am asked to resume my work with half of my normal salary, I have to borrow to manage my basic expenses."

Like Simkhada, hundreds of his fellow journalists and media workers have faced similar or even worse situations, following the global health emergency and subsequent lockdown measures, which have brought economic activity to a standstill in the Himalayan nation.

Read more: Is Philippines muzzling free press amid coronavirus lockdown?

Hard times for media outlets

On June 26, Kantipur's publisher and the country's largest media conglomerate Kantipur Media Group announced the shuttering of its weekly news magazine Nepal, weekly tabloid Saptahik and a monthly women's magazine, Nari. Print editions of these periodicals were suspended after the imposition of the lockdown in late March and were moved to digital-only platforms. At least 60 journalists are said to have lost their jobs following the announcement.

This is not only the case in print media, however. Now, the entire media outlets across all platforms are struggling to sustain business.

In early May, the nation's first news portal, nepalnews.com – which was relaunched with fanfare after a four-year hiatus in May 2019 – stopped its operations due to the pandemic as well.

Furloughed journalists are looking for job opportunities, which are not easy to come by during such a crisis. "I recently approached multiple news organizations for work opportunities, but received no affirmative responses," Bijaya Gajmer, 34, former multimedia coordinator for nepalnews.com, told DW. "I have now become jobless for the first time in my life."

Read more: Migrant deaths: The human cost of Nepal's remittance-dependent economy

Gajmer said he will now use his small savings and borrow from friends to manage his expenses until finding a new job. Nepal currently offers no unemployment policy or benefits.

At least 15% of journalists have already lost their jobs, while more than 30-40% have faced pay cuts, delay in receiving salaries, or extended unpaid leave, according to the FNJ.

Nepal has one of the highest per-capita media presences in South Asia. The nation of 30 million people boasted about 2,000 news organizations, including 700 FM radio stations and 500 daily newspapers, before the pandemic.

According to the Nepal Media Society, a group of media owners and publishers, the media industry has already witnessed some 60-80% in revenue decline, which could continue until economic activity is restored.

Almost all media organizations, except state-run ones, have either reduced their size, cut circulation, reduced content production or switched from print to digital to sustain business. Some have chosen to end their operations after revenues and circulation nosedived.

"Journalists with decades of work experience are losing their jobs and leaving the profession," FNJ Chairman Govinda Acharya told DW.

Read more: Coronavirus: Countries scramble to retrieve tourists stranded in Asia

Calls for state assistance

The FNJ has demanded that the government implement relief measures for independent media to help them cope with the current crisis. It has also called on media managers to look at alternatives to furloughing journalists and cutting operations.

The International Federation of Journalists issued a statement urging media organizations to refrain from passing "economic pressures onto journalists," calling it "inexcusable, particularly in these harsh economic times."

Despite requests from media owners and journalists' trade unions, the Communist-led government headed by Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has been reluctant to lend financial aid to independent media outlets, which are seen as private entities in Nepal. On the contrary, the government frequently takes aim at the media.

Oli has repeatedly criticized the media's focus on the plight of the most disadvantaged sectors of society during the lockdown, which marked 100 days on July 1. The government has faced severe criticism, not only for its handling of the crisis, but also for alleged corruption regarding the procurement of personal protective equipment and infrastructure projects.

In May, Oli accused the media critical of his policies of "creating instability" in the country.

Promoting state-run media

Independent media is facing one of its worst financial situations in decades, but it's likely that only the media organizations that are supportive of government policy will receive support.

Taranath Dahal, the CEO of Freedom Forum Nepal, said the current financial situation of independent media has allowed the government to suppress opposition voices and growing criticism.

Dahal noted that it has become government policy to promote state-run media by providing publicly-sponsored advertisements, and to be indifferent towards the perils of the private media. In Nepal, the state has directly run several different media outlets, including the only wire service – the National News Agency.

"The democratic media landscape which emerged following the restoration of democracy in 1990 is now on the verge of collapse," said Dahal. "It has been systematically squeezed since the Maoist rebellion joined mainstream forces and started leading the government in August 2008."

Read more: Can Indian media report freely about the COVID-19 crisis?

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