Journalists are the frontline workers since day one of the coronavirus pandemic. The day after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation, one country after another started imposing lockdowns and the journalists were the ones who brought out the news of the infections to the people. The media played a very important role in terms of providing information related to the spread of virus and the hardships that people all over the world faced. The media has also been providing entertainment to the people to alleviate their sufferings. People globally have depended on reliable journalists and media houses for providing them with factual news related to the coronavirus and how to stay safe during the pandemic. They have also relied on and have been provided with other news of importance to them from all over the world.
However, like all other industries, the pandemic has strongly impacted the media industry and affected journalists’ work. Many local newspapers have been severely affected by losses in advertising revenues, journalists have been laid off, and some publications have folded. In spite of this, journalists have worked round the clock to produce coverage of the pandemic, combating misinformation, providing public health updates, and supplying entertainment to help people cope with the virus's impact. In some countries including Nepal, Turkey, Egypt, India, Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Madagascar, Zambia, Côte d'Ivoire, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Venezuela, Belarus, Montenegro, Kosovo, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Somalia, journalists have been threatened or arrested for their coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The private sector news media has always been in a fragile situation even before the coronavirus started spreading across the world. Since the impact there has been an economic downturn in all business, and the media houses are also globally hit hard. Finding audience has not been a problem for publishers. Hunger for news in the time of crisis has increased and so online readership may have actually increased for many publications. However, with businesses paused or closed, many print media have had to downsize and even close down. The flow of revenue from subscribers and advertisements, a crucial part of the industry’s support system, has been cracked.
According to an ongoing study by Media Action Nepal (MAN), about 500 journalists in Nepal have lost their jobs and other 5000 journalists are facing employment threats after the pandemic. During a webinar conducted by MAN, journalists representing different media from all the seven states expressed their views that the media sector had been badly affected all over the country. Daily newspapers, weeklies, radios and televisions were either closing down or downsizing. Out of the 30 daily newspapers being published from state 1, now only 6 were continuing, 130 radios and 71 weeklies had closed there, informed Taranath Sapkota, the Editor of Sajilopost.com. Similar voices were heard from other states. Leading journalists from all over the country highlighted the fact that smaller media houses were laying off less staff as opposed to the corporatised media houses that were run from Kathmandu. Several journalists voiced the fact that the private sector media that might have made profits during the period before the pandemic were now giving marching orders to more journalists.
One positive point that surfaced from the provinces was that, with the help of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) association chapters, in different places, many journalists had been insured against coronavirus and several had also received some personal protection equipment. There had been relief packages distributed to journalist who required the support. However, there was a unanimous voice raised from all over the country that the pandemic had indeed made life very uncertain for journalists. FNJ president Govinda Acharya shared that around 2,000 journalists had already lost their jobs and were facing dire consequences, whereas 5,000 journalists were facing job uncertainty in Nepal. Laxman Datt Pant, chairperson of MAN said that journalists usually joined offices in good faith and did not ask for appointment letters. As a result they were more vulnerable to job loss. Due to lack of appointment letters legal address was not possible.
Exact data is still not available, however, the voices from all over the country reflected the fear that while newcomers in the industry would be slashed out more easily, the more experienced journalists were also slowly disappearing from the profession. When they got opportunity, though they may not desire to do so, they were compelled to leave journalism for other professions to meet their financial needs. This would be a loss to the industry. Women journalists who feared to be removed from jobs more easily were also taking up opportunities where available. This increases the possibility of increasing skewed gender representation in media now more than ever before.
There is now a need for the private sector media and Nepal government to come up with strategies to address this situation. While the government needs to set aside proper funds and systems to support journalists and the media industry, the corporatised media houses that have made profits need to set aside funds under their social corporate responsibility for welfare of their staff and also retain journalists who have helped them to set up their credibility in the industry. Strategies can be developed in different steps including an immediate emergency plan leading to short, medium and long term plans.
(Sharma can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter handle: NamrataSharmaP)