Jharana Kandel, a media student in Kathmandu, was terrified after her friend forwarded an audio message on her Messenger account on March 20, 2020. Why wouldn’t she be? At a time when Nepal did not have any active Covid-19 cases and the infection was considered a stigma, she was told that Nepal already had six positive cases but the government was hiding them owning to its failure to control the chaos after the revelation.
“I was so scared that I kept washing my hands and sanitising them repeatedly and forced my parents and siblings to do so,” Kandel remembers, “But, I don’t want to remember that day.”
The next day, Kandel came across a fact-checking post on Mysansar, a popular blog published by journalist Umesh Shrestha alias Salokya, to find that the audio she received was fake. “It was such a relief,” Kandel says.
As the Covid-19 pandemic tightened its grip in Nepal, fake news and false information spread as another equally big epidemic through the past year. Kandel says this was the time when she remembered the need for fact-checking institutions in the country.
Then, Kandel tried to learn more about the fact-checking institutions and found that there were only two such organisations dedicated to fact-checking in Nepal. As the world celebrates International Fact-Checking Day today (April 2), Kandel feels this is insufficient and there needs to be more fact-checkers in the country’s media industry.
Other media consumers, media practitioners and observers, and fact-checkers alike agree with Kandel about the need for a stronger fact-checking culture in Nepal. However, they are not sure if the Nepali media industry is ready to sustain the fact-checking industry.
Fact-checking in Nepal and the world
Ghamaraj Luitel, a media educator at the Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication in Tribhuvan University, views that there had been a lack of fact-checking culture in Nepal and the Covid-19 pandemic exposed it quite widely.
According to Deepak Adhikari, the editor of South Asia Check, a fact-checking website of Nepal, big international media houses like The New York Times and The Washington Post have their own fact-checking units, adding it is high time Nepali media also adopted this culture.
Besides media houses’ fact-checkers, many independent organisations such as PolitiFact (the USA), Alt News, Boom Live (India) and Africa Check (South Africa) are working actively to debunk the fake and misleading information in different parts of the world, according to Adhikari.
He stresses if Nepali media invest in fact-checking from establishing a fact-checking department to hiring human resources and training them, this will make their editing process stronger and add to their credibility, which he says is the greatest wealth of any media.
But, “I have not seen any investment being made by Nepali media organisations in these crucial sectors.”
Umesh Shrestha, the editor of Nepal Fact Check, agrees and says, “This practice has not started in Nepal.”
South Asia Check (2015) and Nepal Fact Check (2020) are the only two institutions dedicated to fact-checking media contents in Nepal.
“But, around the world, fact-checking is in an emerging and evolving phase till today,” Adhikari says, “Lately, the importance of fact-checking grew significantly after Donald Trump was elected the US president and began making fake and misleading claims in his speech.”
As Trump’s claims yielded a need for fact-checking in the US, several recent developments in social and political spheres did so in Nepal, according to Adhikari and Shrestha. Further, Luitel adds, “There is the need for fact-checking not only in the media but also in every sector such as academia and politics.”
“The use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter for obtaining information has escalated of late,” Adhikari says, “Not only information but a lot of misinformation is also being catered through social media.”
This is also revealed by the Nepal Twitter Users Survey conducted by the Centre for Media Research-Nepal in 2019 as it found that 95 per cent of Nepali internet users are exposed to disinformation.
Adhikari, hence, explains, “We fact-check such content and cater fact-based information accordingly. We debunk fake and misleading information. Therefore, the significance of our work has increased.”
Especially in times of elections, disasters, and epidemics like Covid-19, various fake and misleading contents and photos go viral impacting thousands of lives, Adhikari observes, adding, such times have raised the importance of fact-checking.
Questions on sustainability
As the significance of fact-checking has gradually risen, Adhikari believes that fact-checking has a good future. However, he says that there still lies a big question on its sustainability.
Shrestha agrees and says the future of fact-checking is not that bright in Nepal as many people do not have an idea of what it is and how it is done as it is a technical issue. Likewise, in his experience, fact-checked contents have reached way fewer people than false or fake viral contents did, and also at a much slower pace.
“Regarding its economic sustainability, the nature of fact-checking is different; it is not of business nature,” he says, “It is done for catering awareness. Fact-checking organisations cannot run like news portals by earning from advertisements. If they get ads, the question of impartiality arises there.”
But, Luitel thinks such organisations can sustain themselves by generating income from advertisement, meanwhile, without compromising on their editorial policy. He states, “It is not sure that funds will always be available for such organisations.”
However, both the fact-checking organisations currently operating in Nepal are run on grants.
Adhikari says, “We [South Asia Check] are operated with the funds given by Open Society Foundation. Once the funds stop, it will be difficult for us to sustain. However, we have taken this as a movement to establish and promote fact-checking culture in Nepal and encouraging media houses to establish fact-checking units.”
Adhikari views that for fact-checking to operate economically, it has to be owned by the media organisations. They should fact-check their own work and also can cross-check other viral contents, he suggests.
For independent fact-checking organisations, some other ways to be sustainable can be generating revenues by giving training to journalists and others about fact-checking as well as reviewing various reports and books for different organisations.