This year, Nepal leapfrogged to 76 among 180 countries, up from last year’s 106, in the Press Freedom Index. Reporters without Borders ranked India 150, down from 142 last year. Pakistan slipped to 157.
Nepal has one of the freest media in a region where the mediascape is increasingly constricted by state and corporate control. But this does not mean it will stay that way. Nepal has seen periods of direct press censorship in the past when successive governments tried to regulate the public sphere.
The state has left the mainstream press alone, but there are ongoing attempts to restrict freedom of expression through draft bills and laws, often in the guise of controlling hate speech, fake news, or mis-and dis-information on the internet.
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To be sure, Nepal’s cybersphere is rife with harmful and often manipulative interaction, misogyny, misinformation, incitement to violence, conspiracy theories, and content with toxic overtones. These have real-world implications for democracy, as we have seen recently in neighbouring countries.
But the internet is double-edged. Social media provides a platform for the traditionally neglected and discriminated to be heard. It has leveled the field so everyone has a voice. The downtrodden do not have to fight for access to the national press anymore.
However, those voices are often lost in the long tail of digital information overload. Search engine algorithms still give priority to mainstream sites and blue ticks.
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Social media is now the primary source of raw information, serving as both a producer and a disseminator of content. This reliance on social media has also meant that, for better or worse, it has affected how journalists and their media outlets perform their job.
For news publishers and readers, social media has decreased market entry costs and expanded reach. But at the same time, there is no distinction between the role of content creators and news curators.
Whereas journalism draws a clear line between news and views, the same is not true for internet content. Still, most Nepalis do not draw a distinction between comments on Facebook and links to news pieces on the Facebook wall of mainstream outlets.
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On the other hand, print-centric attitudes pervade newsrooms. Many editors and reporter regard digital content as being of inferior quality, not as credible and not ‘serious journalism’.
Surveys may show that the Nepali audience has high trust in print and broadcast outlets, but most get their news and information through the social web.
Journalists often bemoan the rise of YouTubers and TikTokers and other influencers, but rarely analyse why that is happening. On online social spaces, people now have the power and platform to discuss issues that are ignored by the mainstream press, and set their own agenda.
Nepal’s legacy media still has one foot in print or tv, and a toetip on the internet. Most have not yet figured out whether their digital identity is a continuation of their traditional role, or a transformation.
For legacy media to gain trust and traction in the digital space, it needs to shift focus from attention grabbing sensational headlines to credible insight, explainers, and a focus on what users want and need to make sense of what is happening around them. Call it public service media in the digital age.
To maintain public trust and keep its numbers up, we need to engage with users, make news production more inclusive, participatory, transparent and human.
Sahina Shrestha is Editor Online of Nepali Times.