Off the Record 037: The future of The Record
Issue 037 • 21 January 2022
It’s January 21, 2022, and you’re reading Off the Record, the weekly newsletter from The Record. We are an independent, ad-free, digital news publication out of Kathmandu, Nepal.
I’m Pranaya Rana, editor of The Record, and in this newsletter, we’ll stop, take a deep breath, and dive into one singular issue that defined the past week.
Good morning, good afternoon, and good evening from Covid-central Kathmandu. Daily cases have been increasing steadily since last week and it’s become clear that we’re in the midst of the third wave of the pandemic. On Friday, there were 10,703 (8,815 RT-PCR) new cases, 12,338 (10,052 RT-PCR) on Thursday, and 11,352 (9,502 RT-PCR) on Wednesday. The positivity rate is an alarming 47.3 percent, meaning that every other test is coming back positive. Nepal is firmly in the whirl of the Covid storm and things are only bound to get worse before they get better.
Thankfully, hospitalization rates are not rising as fast. Out of the 65,374 currently active cases, a majority — 63,734 — are in home isolation, with 1,640 in hospital, 194 in the ICU, and 35 on ventilator support, according to the Health Ministry. This is a good sign for Nepal’s dismal health infrastructure. Nepal’s hospitals could not have weathered another wave like the Delta one last year.
But this is just the beginning. Cases have not even begun to plateau and there is no telling when the wave will crest, and at what number. The next few weeks will be crucial for Nepal with the direction of the pandemic depending on what measures the authorities enact. Kathmandu Valley will be reimposing the odd-even traffic system starting Friday night. All mass gatherings have been forbidden while supermarkets and department stores will only be allowed to house a maximum of 20 people at one time. Proof of vaccination will also be required while entering public spaces, although The Kathmandu Post reported that many people have already lost their vaccination cards and there’s no corresponding digital record.
Booster doses are also currently being given out to frontline health workers and a few other groups. However, this isn’t technically a ‘booster’ dose as much as a third dose of the vaccination. This could help keep symptoms to be a minimum and prevent more hospitalization.
But given the continuing rise in daily cases, with a vast majority in the Kathmandu Valley, perhaps some limitations to public movement are warranted. While everyone is pretty much averse to a strict lockdown like last year and the year before, some restrictions could be in the offing. I, for one, don’t really see many options remaining. While mask mandates, vaccinations, and the odd-even rule might stem the tide a bit, the nearly 50 percent positivity rate shows that the virus has spread deep into the community and people are now just giving Covid-19 to each other. Unless people are prevented from moving around as much, there will not be a fall in cases.
The authorities, however, appear to be focused, as usual, on politicking. The issue that is currently galvanizing the political establishment and the media is that of elections. This is election year and both federal as well as local elections need to take place. Elections were last held in 2017 for all three levels of government — federal, provincial, and local — albeit at different times in the year. Local elections were held first, with the first phase beginning on May 14, 2017. According to the Nepali constitution and the Local Election Act 2017, fresh elections must conclude at least 15 days before the expiry of the term of the incumbents. The Election Commission has thus duly proposed that local elections be held in April-May.
But, here comes Pushpa Kamal Dahal with a spoiler. Dahal has been arguing that federal elections be held first and local elections pushed back to November. He’s argued, in an interview with Kantipur, that the federal Parliament needs a fresh mandate since it’s been rendered non-functional by the opposition. But the truth of the matter appears to be that Dahal is afraid his party, the Maoist Center, will face a drubbing at the polls and thus, wishes to go to federal elections while he is still part of the ruling coalition. Even though the Nepali Congress has said that it will not be entering into an electoral alliance with any other party, Dahal hopes to finagle some deal that will allow his party to garner at least a respectable amount of federal seats, much like he did in 2017 by tying up with the CPN-UML. Once that’s done, he’ll have another six months or so to prepare for local elections.
The UML is dead-set against this proposal. The UML’s KP Sharma Oli has been ready for elections since last year, when he tried twice to dissolve the federal Parliament and go to the polls. Oli knows that he has a small window to cash in on the nationalist goodwill he’s generated by issuing a new map and making brash statements to spite India, which has long been a tried-and-tested tactic for Nepali politicians. Oli’s party is also much stronger organizationally than the others. Dahal’s Maoist Center and Madhav Kumar Nepal’s CPN-UML (Unified Socialist) are still chafing from their split with Oli while the Nepali Congress still has to get its act together. If anyone will benefit from early elections, it will be the UML.
Dahal is unlikely to get his way but given how wily of a political animal he is, I wouldn’t be surprised if he manages to gain something from the brouhaha alone.
Speaking of fracases, two more incidents over the past week led to heated public debates. On Monday, the provincial assembly of Province 2 endorsed a proposal to name the province ‘Madhes Province’ with Janakpur as its provincial capital. As the only province that is located solely within the Madhes, the name made sense, but for a section of the public, the name was apparently disrespectful and/or misguided. Social media was rife with opinions that the name should’ve been Mithila Province and that the province’s Mithila identity was being erased while think pieces reflected on how the word ‘Madhes’ had no historicity.
My opinion here is that the word ‘Madhes’ is something that has been chosen by the residents of the Madhes-Tarai and is used to encompass a great many cultures, ethnicities, and languages. The Tarai is a geographical marker while the Madhes is a cultural one. It was under this identity that Madhesis fought for recognition and federalism during the Madhes Movements. Let’s not forget that the name Madhes Province was passed by a two-thirds majority in the provincial assembly. It reeks of old Nepal for pundits in Kathmandu to continue to try and dictate how provinces should act or what they should be called. Still, this was primarily a good debate, one that should take place in a democracy.
The second fracas, not so much. It involved a comment made by Renu Yadav, current minister for transportation and physical infrastructure from the Janata Samajbadi party. While in Gaur on Wednesday, Yadav’s convoy was reportedly obstructed by cadres of the CK Raut-led Janmat Party who displayed black flags. Raut was once a controversial figure who had allegedly advocated for a ‘separate Madhes’ but he’s since been co-opted by the system and signed a peace deal with the government of KP Sharma Oli. His party, however, has been supporting protesting farmers who have long been demanding their dues from large mills. Yadav reportedly went on stage to publically call out Raut and make veiled threats of violence by referring to the 2007 Gaur massacre. She repeatedly asked Raut to recall the ‘rice mill incident’ and threatened to repeat history.
In March 2007, 27 people were killed when violence broke out between cadres of the then Madhesi Janadhikar Forum and the CPN (Maoist). Both parties had scheduled rallies at Gaur’s Rice Mill, leading to a violent clash between the two sides. Twenty-six Maoist cadres and one unidentified person were killed, some of them hunted down in the nearby villages despite fleeing the scene. According to an OHCHR report:
One female and five male CPN-M members were killed immediately on the Rice Mill field itself. Others were killed as they fled away from the field. One woman, whom it is believed sustained injuries in an alleyway adjacent to the field, died in hospital in Gaur a short time later. Another six male CPN-M cadres were also fatally attacked in Gaur itself: one was killed directly in front of the APF HQ where between 30 and 35 personnel were on guard duty and must have seen what was happening; three sustained injuries outside Chandra Guesthouse and died after being taken to hospital; and two died later on their way to Chitwan for medical treatment.
Given the extent of the violence, it is clear why Renu Yadav’s comments on Wednesday led to widespread condemnation. A section of civil society, including human rights lawyers Charan Prasai and Sushil Pyakurel and journalist Kanak Mani Dixit, has called for Yadav to be removed as minister. For her part, Minister Yadav has said that her comments were edited and taken out of context but that seems unlikely.
And that is where I’ll end this week’s wrap-up. This time, in lieu of our regular deep dive, I’d like to do something different, partly because there hasn’t been a singular incident that I could look into this week and partly because we are at a critical juncture at The Record.
The deep dive: The future of The Record
When Gyanu Adhikari and Kate Saunders founded The Record in 2014, I wasn’t around. I was working at the time for The Kathmandu Post, having replaced Gyanu as the paper’s Op-Ed editor. Gyanu had gotten disillusioned with the mainstream media industry and found a kindred spirit in Kate. Together, they started The Record, paying for it largely out of pocket.
In the seven-or-so years since then, The Record has gone on to establish itself as an independent and fiercely critical voice in the Nepali media landscape. It has attempted to ‘explain’ the news more so than just report it, and provided a space for personalities and issues that wouldn’t necessarily find space in the mainstream media. Its long reads are immensely popular, acting as a vital resource for students, other journalists, and scholars alike.
In the process, The Record has also done something that I would’ve deemed impossible — survive. Without ads, without a corporate backer, without even a business model. It has subsisted largely on a series of grants, from Open Society, Governance Facility, and the Google News Initiative. This isn’t a secret; it’s right there on our About page. Somehow, despite not having a lot of funding, The Record managed to produce stellar stories and pay its contributors rates that are well above what other, much larger publications pay.
Over the years, The Record’s core team has changed, but its values have not. Many people have joined and left, but somehow, The Record has always managed to find stewards who share the vision of its founders.
When I left The Kathmandu Post, it was largely out of disillusionment. I had enjoyed working with the Post, but my career came to a halt, or rather, was brought to a halt. I learned much during my time there, first under Akhilesh Upadhyay and later under Anup Kaphle. While the former taught me how to write editorials and bring nuance to my writing, the latter taught me to see journalism in a new light and to pursue it in a manner that most mainstream media would likely not tolerate. I still see Anup and Gyanu both as iconoclasts, people who weren’t afraid to buck the system and go their own way, destroying pointless ‘traditions’ in the process.
That was the paradigm that I came to The Record with. I did not plan on becoming editor and to date, I do not feel I am really cut out for this role, but it has been thrust upon me and I have accepted the mantle, however begrudgingly. In the year since, I’ve attempted to bring The Record back to its reporting, back to its explainers, long reads, and cultural criticism.
But let me be brutally honest here. When I joined, The Record’s accounts were already emptying. We were forced to let go of two senior reporters and have been subsisting largely on a mix of young, short-term interns and outside commissions. I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that we are nearing breaking point. We have at most two-three months.
So this is in part a call for support and in part a treatise on what, I believe, is The Record’s value for the Nepali media. First, the treatise.
I don’t believe that there is any media outlet in Nepal that is truly independent. And I mean, truly. Kantipur, Nagarik, Himal, Annapurna, Naya Patrika — their owners all have business interests and agendas. At some outlets, the publisher maintains a distance and never explicitly dictates what must or must not be published. At others, the publisher is also editor, reporting and writing editorials. And at still others, the publisher is shadow-editor, not explicitly present in the bylines but a looming presence deciding what can and can not be printed. Even online web portals are not immune from this. As I’ve pointed out numerous times in this newsletter, KhabarHub’s reporting raises countless red flags while I find it a miracle that Baahrakhari has managed to exist for as long as it has, despite being almost nonexistent on social media. I don’t mean to throw shade but take a look at its Twitter account — 55k followers and its posts have barely any engagement, barely a like or two, no retweets. For any digital media outlet, this would be the end. And yet, Baahrakhari has persisted for a decade now.
For comparison, The Record’s Twitter account has just about 8,500 followers and we get at least 10 likes and two-three retweets per post. Yes, I know, those are very poor numbers.
But anyway, apologies for that digression. Back to The Record and what we bring to the table.
To reiterate, we’re independent. That means there are no deep-pocketed financiers getting rich off of our labor. We don’t have ‘owners’ and thus, we don’t have people who we need to call ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ when they walk through the newsroom. We’re a for-profit company because registering that was the easiest, but we’re not really ‘for’ profit. Whatever money we raise, whatever money we make, we plow right back into The Record. None of it goes towards the latest model SUV. I can assure you, neither Kate nor Gyanu rides around in cars that take up two lanes. I’m not sure Gyanu even drives.
What this means is that our incentive to write is not external. We choose The Record because it is a place to report honestly, without worrying about who we’re enriching in the process. We don’t have ethical conflicts of interest because we really don’t have any real ‘interests’. Our interest really ends with the article. No one here wants to get rich off The Record; no one wants to use The Record to further nefarious political or economic interests. That gives us true freedom and independence. We aren’t beholden to anyone or anything, not even the accumulation of capital.
That brings me to my second point — we don’t chase clicks, views, or eyeballs. This is the attention economy and everything is vying for your interest. This leads to news organizations rushing to be the first to break news and screwing up in the process. Or using clickbait headlines and content that damage credibility. Or placing extremely intrusive ads in the middle of a 10-15 second video posted on social media (I’m looking at you Setopati). We don’t need to do any of that because we don’t really care.
Other news outlets are content to report the news, we want to explain it. That’s why you won’t see breaking news on our website or our social media pages. Ever. We’re not in the breaking news industry. We’re slow news. We want to slow things down, not speed them up. We’d like you to take your time with the news, go beyond headlines and two-paragraph reports. We want our readers to really engage with the news, which you can do only if you really, truly understand what the news is about. Hence, our explainers, our features, and our long reads. We are all-in for a more informed society.
Does this sound appealing? I really hope it does because it leads now to the pleading part.
The bottom line is, we need funding. And fast. Our grants have run out and we haven’t received nearly enough contributions from supporters and members. Our long-term goal is to become fully reader-supported, like The Guardian or The Wire. We’d like our readers to have a stake in our longevity and if we’re ever going to be accountable to anyone, it should be the reading public, not an ‘owner’. But we’re a long, long way from that goal. I am thinking it will take at least 5 to 10 years.
In the meantime, we need whatever support you can give us. Any little bit helps. Whatever you can afford. If you’ve read something off of The Record that you enjoyed, valued, and thought there should be more of, give to us. If you enjoy this newsletter and my weekly ramblings, consider tipping me a few hundred (or thousand) rupees. Really, anything helps because at this time, we’re desperate, we’d like to keep going but we can’t unless we’re able to pay salaries and remunerate our contributors.
Right now, we have less than a dozen staff, half of whom are administration. Our monthly expenses are roughly Rs 300,000-400,000 — a fraction of what other media houses run on. We’d love to expand, hire more reporters, editors, fact-checkers, photographers, videographers, podcasters, graphic artists, event managers, social media managers, fundraising officers. We’d love to be able to give you, our readers, what you want — writing that is accurate, honest, and independent.
So there it is, my plea. If you’re convinced, please donate. I know we haven’t made it easy to donate via our website but I promise you, we are aware and are working on it. Soon, it will be easier than ever to support us. In the meantime, if you’re in Nepal, you can give via Esewa or Khalti through this number 9810162261. If you’re abroad, you can donate via PayPal by clicking here. If neither of these methods work, shoot us an email at email@example.com and we’ll figure out a way.
The future of journalism isn’t that great, especially in Nepal. On the one hand, we have an ossified mainstream media industry struggling to adapt to the digital age and on the other, we have hundreds of online portals serving one interest or the other, but not the public interest. And meanwhile, all the young people are getting their news from Facebook and Instagram. A part of me dies every time I hear a young person say they get their news exclusively from Routine of Nepal Banda. It’s a bleak, dystopian future where RONB is the sole arbiter of what is newsworthy.
If that scares you — and it should — give to The Record.
On The Record this past week:
Shuvam Rizal on the climate change analogy in Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up’
Marissa Taylor on the third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic
Sambridh Ghimire on political parties and the importance of internal democracy
Rakesh Prasad Chaudhary on compensation for migrant deaths during the pandemic
Happenings this week:
Sunday - The Health Ministry began administering booster doses (basically a third dose of the vaccine) to frontline health workers, bank officials, and journalists, among others. There were, however, issues with the rollout as many had lost their previous vaccination cards and there was confusion over who could get the shot.
Monday - The provincial assembly of Province 2 voted by a two-thirds majority to name the province ‘Madhes Province’ and chose Janakpur as its provincial capital.
Tuesday - At least 2.4 million vaccine doses are reportedly unaccounted for, and this is allowing for up to 4 percent of wastage, according to Kantipur daily.
Wednesday - The Kathmandu District Administration Office halted all public services citing the rising number of Covid-19 cases. The DAO is responsible for issuing citizenship certificates, birth certificates, and national identity cards, among others.
Thursday - A Health Ministry order to reduce the costs of RT-PCR tests at both public and private hospitals went into effect. The order had slashed costs of the PCR test from Rs 1,000 at public hospitals to Rs 800, and from Rs 2,000 to Rs 1,500 at private hospitals. Not everyone is following the order, however.
Friday - In his first televised address to the nation since being appointed prime minister six months ago, Sher Bahadur Deuba informed the public of all that his government had done and was going to do. There was not much of any real substance, except for the claim that all Nepalis would be vaccinated by the end of Chaitra (mid-April).
Article of the week:
‘The lasting scars of war: sexual violence during the conflict’ — Ameesha Rayamajhi and Deepesh Shrestha detail how transitional justice is leaving behind the survivors and victims of sexual violence during the 10-year civil war.
That’s all for this week. Off the Record will be back in your inboxes next Friday. I shall see you then, in your emails, for the next edition of Off the Record.
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