While the Nepali media at large has contributed in promoting diverse voices and strengthening democracy, there are complaints about misleading information, unsubstantiated allegations, distortion of facts, ideological bias, abuse of press power, and personal revenge. This has raised questions about the credibility of media content
Separating information and other types of communication content, that is, disinformation and hate speech, World Press Freedom Day (WPFD), 2021 is being celebrated, advocating the notion of information as a public good.
This celebration brings back WPFD to its origins to Windhoek, Namibia in 1991 and focusses on contemporary issues of press freedom, access to information and the media's role in ensuring public interest.
In addition to calls for ensuring the economic viability of news media, the 2021 WPFD emphasises transparency of internet companies and enriched media literacy to enable people to recognise and value journalism as a vital part of information as a public good.
Against this backdrop, it is crucial for stakeholders, such as media organisations, media rights advocacy groups, academia, journalists and readers to respect, recognise and promote the notion of information as a public good to advance shared values central to building blocks for knowledge.
Despite the debate on media restructuring, backed by sufficient training and education opportunities to promote media professionalism, Nepali media is at risk as journalists continue to serve political and business interests, thus weakening the watchdog role.
On the other hand, ruling and opposition political parties in Nepal reiterate their support for complete press freedom and the rule of law, but fail to address serious security issues of journalists. Perpetrators involved in threats and violence against journalists during and after the conflict went unpunished.
Drafts of laws and legislation concerning freedom of press, internet and online expression tabled in the federal and provincial level parliaments in the last three years show that lawmakers have not paid attention to the provisions of fundamental rights in the constitution of Nepal and to the international treaties that Nepal has ratified to ensure a free and independent culture of information.
And, now Nepali media is facing an economic crisis due to COVID-19, adversely affecting the lives and careers of journalists. An ongoing study by Media Action Nepal shows that around 500 journalists have lost their jobs, whereas 5,000journalists are facing an employment crisis.
This situation poses a threat to a free, independent and accountable media, and enforces self-censorship among journalists, destroying the principles of an ethical and credible media.
While Nepali media at large has contributed in promoting diverse voices and strengthening democracy, there are complaints about misleading information, unsubstantiated allegations, distortion of facts, ideological bias, abuse of press power, and personal revenge. This has raised questions about the credibility of media content.
Factual and credible information at times of crisis, such as the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic, is even more significant.
Journalists should not forget that in times of crisis, information can be a matter of life or death. Observations from third party fact checkers, such as South Asia Check and Nepal Fact Check, show that in the absence of reliable data and credible sources, Nepali media has created panic among the readers, creating a vacuum for potentially harmful content, that is, false claims about COVID-19 infections, vaccine and treatment, character assassination, attacks on privacy, political gains, misleading information and conspiracy theories.
Addressing these concerns to promote credible journalism, a study carried out by Media Action Nepal has called on the media to stay away from disseminating misinformation. The study disclosed that there has not been enough monitoring, review and analysis of media content in Nepal.
The study also recommended investing in capacity building of journalists and holding in-house dialogue and interaction on ways to preventing disinformation.
Given that anonymous and fictitious sources are used by Nepali newspapers and online news portals, the study has also recommended they adhere to the Journalistic Code of Conduct.
The digital content produced and disseminated in Nepal both by independent online media outlets and the traditional media, that is, newspapers, radio and television channels is consumed my many people.
Any digital content that goes against clause 47 of the Electronic Transaction Act has been restrictive and expected to be even more restrictive under the proposed Information Technology Act.
It is important for lawmakers and authorities to perceive that information, as a public good with potential for universal reach, allows people to know their rights and prerogatives.
There is no doubt that an independent media cannot flourish in an environment where professional security and freedom are challenged.
It is equally important for journalists and media organisations to dissociate themselves from political and identity-based organisations.
A partisan and biased approach makes journalists more vulnerable to criticism and attacks, and diminishes their credibility among recipients.
While journalists in Nepal have been affected by the COVID-19 economic crisis and the culture of impunity, their political involvement puts the credibility of the content they produce at risk.
Furthermore, lack of awareness among the public and the political actors about the independent role of journalists has been hindering the public's access to information and enjoyment of fundamental freedoms.
Efforts should be made to accelerate media and information literacy of these groups.
Let us all consider the theme of WPFD, 2021, that is, 'promoting information as a public good', and let this serve as a call to renew our commitment towards independent and accountable media.
Pant is chairperson of Media Action Nepal
A version of this article appears in the print on May 3, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.