THE GROWTH OF TV CHANNELS
TV journalism in Nepal does not date back too far in time. Television in Nepal started with the establishment of the first government-owned ‘Nepal Television’ in January 1985. Following the country’s transition to democracy in 2006, the visual media embarked on a slow but steady transition to independence. Within a matter of just two decades, TV channels sprouted like wild mushrooms all over the country airing news and entertainment programs, thanks to the growing viewership and the availability of TV sets in almost every household - both rich and poor. Currently, there are 14 privately-owned television channels and 2 government-owned channels registered inside Kathmandu while 5 Nepali language television channels offer their services outside Nepal. The number of new upcoming TV channels is also steadily on the rise. And with this, a fierce competition between television channels to occupy most of the market in Nepal has only begun.
CHARM vs. REALITY
Television has comparatively more charm than other forms of media because of its ability to connect to its audience audio-visually. In Nepal, television has played a significant role in shaping the socio-political sphere in the last decade, especially during the People’s Movement of 2006. Apart from this, the television channels have also assumed a more recent role of monitoring issues like food quality and hygiene, for e.g. breaking the New Road Corner Gud Paak Scam (where the distributors were caught red-handed using adulterated and inedible items while preparing the widely-sold and all-popular traditional sweet item, Gud Paak) or highlighting corruption cases and illegal trade dealings like that of the red sandalwood across the Nepal-China border. Such initiatives taken by TV channels have all but kick-started a new movement of ensuring law and order in the society. The revelations made by television channels - although termed ‘publicity attempts’ by some - from time to time have kept various social and political stakeholders alert. Unfortunately, this has also reinforced the trust and faith of the viewers on television channels and the material they present.
Behind all this charm and hype, television journalism in Nepal is gradually transforming into a market-hungry and tyrannical business. Recently, many television channels have fallen into a financial crunch and are becoming unviable as businesses. There has been a sharp decline in advertising revenue, production costs have soared, and there is a cut-throat competition for audience and advertising. As a result, TV Journalists haven't been paid for months and the channel owners face monstrous debts. Yellow journalism is prevalent everywhere and the security of TV journalists is at stake. Amid all these problems, TV channels are scrambling to survive in the market with politically-influenced and self-manufactured programs to draw investors and advertisers alike, and keep their office and disgruntled staff working.
ALL WORK, NO PAY
Today, the repute of every TV channel is at stake. Also at stake, are the TV journalists themselves, who are crying out loud for better pay and working conditions.
Despite the law’s clear mandate in favor of decent wages and working conditions for journalists, numerous media houses in Nepal (with very few exceptions) have been conspicuous in their default on these requirements. Hundreds of TV journalists across the country are denied their appointment letters and regular salaries by their offices. The book “Shramejeevi Patrakar Media Addhyayan Prativedan, 2067” which includes the study of past and present situation of the working journalists in the country and several issues regarding the minimum wages reveals that 45 per cent of journalists have not received any official appointment letter and 37 per cent of them are not getting the minimum wages also. Another breakdown: The average salary of a television reporter in Nepal is estimated to be around Rs.7000, while that of a news anchor is Rs.9000. Compare that to an average salary of a security guard in government office which is around Rs. 10,000 (including benefits). While the owners and high-rankers of such media houses tour the cities on their posh “Land Rovers” and “Prados”, many journalists barely even make up enough money to afford their daily commute to work.
Most of the staff in such TV stations are not only underpaid but also not paid on time. In average, you will find that the salaries of workers in most of the media houses are kept on hold for at least two or three months before they are cleared. This continues throughout the year- which means that if a journalist decides to opt out of his job after a year of work, he will still have a due salary worth at least three or four months.
The scenes inside the office are equally dismal. A television station that flaunts of having five different studios has barely the same number of toilets to contain its numerous employees. There is hardly any back-up for the huge amount of data-networking and electricity that goes into running programs and bulletins. Printers and video-recording devices are ill-maintained to the extent that even news-making process is put at stake. News reporters and visual editors are made to work for long hours citing lack of manpower. The list goes on.
In a country, where even chief justices are shot in broad daylight, one cannot expect much about the security of journalists. Call it an irony that journalists who are supposed to cover the news are now becoming news themselves.
News of reporters being threatened, attacked or even murdered, TV stations being vandalized or delivery vans being torched have been making headlines all over. TV journalists are often threatened for not attending press conferences, reporting on corruption and irregularities, naming those involved in crime, or not highlighting speeches or rallies of a particular political party. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) there have been around a dozen of unsolved cases on forced disappearance and murder of journalists in just six years following the civil war. Just five months back, Yadav Poudel, a local correspondent for the Kathmandu-based Avenues TV was found mysteriously murdered outside a hotel in Jhapa. A month later, brutal attacks were carried out on numerous TV journalists nation-wide by various indigenous groups for, allegedly, not covering enough stories on the indigenous movement and their nation-wide shutdown. These are just one of the many examples of how TV journalists are being openly bullied by a few political groups for their own partisan interests.
With such blatant political meddling and criminal threats looming every now and then, TV journalists are inadvertently getting caught in the crossfire between politicized criminal groups and criminalized political factions. They often have to think twice about wearing their press IDs and green vests before heading out to cover stories. The media houses, meanwhile, are showing hardly any interest in ensuring the safety of their employees.
WHERE ARE THE STAKEHOLDERS?
Keeping all of the above in mind, the related authorities- namely Ministry for Information and Communications, Federation of Nepalese Journalists and Minimum Wage Determination Committee have, apparently, been involved in a series of deliberations over the implementation of the Working Journalists Act and Labor Act in these past years. But except for false rhetoric and promises for improvement, very little has been achieved so far. While the owners of media houses are openly flouting the Working Journalist Act and failing to remunerate their employees, the related stakeholders are busy raising concerns and journalists are unfailingly suffering.
THE TAINTED RACE
Amid all the turmoil, TV stations are desperately trying to stay afloat with their tainted practices even if it means transgressing media ethics and denying basic rights to their employees. With a growing but limited market, and increasing revenues, they are cashing in on more political programs that bring in advertising money and entertainment programs that attract younger audience and increase their viewership. Development issues are hardly a priority, stories arriving from outer districts lack quality and there is no diversity in the matter being presented on screen. There is a stiff competition between channels to present flash or breaking news first, but little concern to verify or investigate the sources from where they are coming. The TV giants are simply running a rat race where the goal to capture most of the market is achieved by breaching the laws and exploiting the workforce.
Despite the miserable working conditions and a constant threat to their lives, TV journalists choose to continue with their jobs as they simply don’t have anywhere else to go. And even if they do, the working conditions for them are almost similar everywhere. Those who are lucky enough to escape, join a different stream, start their own business or migrate to another media house for a better pay and position. The void created by the leaving staff draws in new exposure-seeking and less experienced faces into TV stations, thus, compromising the overall quality of the programs being broadcasted. In a way, TV stations have almost become training grounds for aspiring journalists who do not expect much but the ‘journalism experience’ itself.
At a time when the country is stuck between a constitutional and a political crisis, such behavior displayed by Nepali television channels has not only undermined journalistic integrity and editorial freedom but questioned the role of the very institution that is supposed to help ensure justice in the society.