On March 20, 2020, Jharana Kandel, a media student in Kathmandu, was terrified when a friend forwarded an audio message to her Messenger account. She has to be, right? She was told that Nepal already had six positive cases of Covid-19, but that the government was hiding them because of its inability to contain the uproar following the revelation.
“I was so terrified that I kept washing and sanitizing my hands over and over again, forcing my parents and siblings to do the same,” Kandel recalls. “But I don’t want to remember that day.”
Kandel discovered the audio she got was fake the next day after reading a fact-checking article on Mysansar, a prominent blog run by journalist Umesh Shrestha alias Salokya. Kandel exclaims, “It was such a relief.”
Fake news and false knowledge spread as the Covid-19 pandemic strengthened its grip in Nepal over the past year. This was the moment, according to Kandel, when she realized the country needed fact-checking organizations.
Then Kandel looked into fact-checking organizations and discovered that Nepal only had two. Today (April 2) is International Fact-Checking Day, and Kandel believes that more fact-checkers are needed in the country’s media.
Other media users, journalists, observers, and fact-checkers agree with Kandel that Nepal needs a better fact-checking community. They are unsure, however, whether the Nepalese media industry would be able to support the fact-checking industry.
Nepal’s and the world’s fact-checking
According to Ghamaraj Luitel, a media instructor at Tribhuvan University’s Central Department of Journalism and Mass Communication, Nepal had a shortage of fact-checking tradition, which the Covid-19 pandemic revealed widely.
Major international media houses like The New York Times and The Washington Post, according to Deepak Adhikari, editor of South Asia Check, a fact-checking website in Nepal, have their own fact-checking units, and it’s past time for Nepali media to follow suit, he says.
According to Adhikari, several independent organizations, including PolitiFact (USA), Alt News, Boom Live (India), and Africa Search (South Africa), are actively working to refute false and misleading information in various parts of the world.
He emphasizes that if Nepali media invest in fact-checking, from creating a fact-checking department to recruiting and educating human resources, it would improve their editorial process and increase their reputation, which he believes is the most valuable asset any media can have.
“However, I have not seen any investment in these vital sectors by Nepali media organizations.”
“This practice has not begun in Nepal,” says Nepal Fact Check editor Umesh Shrestha.
The only two organizations in Nepal dedicated to evidence-checking media content are South Asia Search (2015) and Nepal Fact Check (2020).
“However, fact-checking is still in its early stages around the world,” Adhikari says. “Recently, the value of fact-checking has grown dramatically since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States and started making false and misleading statements in his speech.”
The market is greater.
According to Adhikari and Shrestha, many recent social and political developments in Nepal have resulted in the need for fact-checking, just as Trump’s statements have in the United States. “Fact-checking is needed not only in the media but also in every field, including academia and politics,” Luitel adds.
The Nepal Twitter Users Survey, conducted in 2019 by the Centre for Media Research-Nepal, found that 95% of Nepali internet users are exposed to misinformation.
“We fact-check such material and cater fact-based information accordingly,” Adhikari says. We debunk material that is false or misleading. As a result, our work now has a greater significance.”
Various false and misleading contents and photos go viral, affecting thousands of lives, particularly during elections, disasters, and epidemics like Covid-19, Adhikari observes, adding that such times have increased the value of fact-checking.
Concerns about the future
Adhikari claims that fact-checking has a bright future because of the growing value of fact-checking. He does, however, conclude that its long-term survival remains a major concern.
Shrestha agrees, stating that the future of fact-checking in Nepal is grim because many people are ignorant of what it is and how it is carried out because it is a technical matter. Similarly, fact-checked content has reached far less people, and at a far slower rate, than false or bogus viral content, in his experience.
“In terms of its economic viability,” he states, “the nature of fact-checking is different; it is not of a commercial nature; it is done for catering awareness.” Fact-checking organizations can’t make money from ads the way news portals can. The problem of impartiality occurs if they are granted advertisements.”
However, Luitel claims that such organizations can thrive by generating revenue through advertisements while preserving their editorial policies. “Funding for such organizations will not always be available,” he says.
Both of Nepal’s fact-checking organizations, however, are funded through grants.
“We [South Asia Check] are funded by Open Society Foundation,” Adhikari explains. It will be difficult for us to continue until the funds are exhausted. We, on the other hand, have turned this into a movement to create and foster a fact-checking culture in Nepal, as well as to encourage media houses to set up fact-checking units.”
Fact-checking, according to Adhikari, must be owned by media corporations in order to be profitable. He advises that they fact-check their own work and cross-check other viral materials.
Other revenue-generating opportunities for independent fact-checking organizations include offering fact-checking instruction to journalists and others, as well as reviewing numerous reports and books for various organizations.