Investing in investigative journalism
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 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.
The best test that investigative journalism is impactful is when it speaks truth to power, and it rattles those that weird it. Presidents have been forced to resign after exposés by investigative journalists in the United States and the Philippines.
In the past 25 years, the Centre of Investigative Journalism-Nepal (CIJ-N) may not have ousted a prime minister here, but it has constantly rocked the boat, exposed wrongdoing and injustice, and afflicted the comfortable.
It is not easy doing investigative journalism in Nepal. The country may not be small, but it has a small elite in which the centres 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 neighbouring 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 TRP anymore because their actual revenue rival is TikTok.
The world’s biggest and oldest democracies treat the rule of law as sacrosanct, but by manipulating the internet with troll armies and bot factories, demagogues are getting themselves elected. Fanning populism, ultra-nationalism, racism and hate speech make an explosive potion to mobilise 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 weaponising 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, was bought by a Modi crony and the world’s third-richest man, Gautam Adani.
The legacy press must 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, rumours 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 analyse, 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.
Kunda Dixit is publisher of Nepali Times. Excerpt from a keynote presentation at the 25th Anniversary function of the Centre for Investigative Journalism Nepal on 2 September 2022.