How to cover a crisis like COVID-19 in the best possible way? Investigative multimedia journalist Rajneesh Bhandari seeks the answer in building a strong network of journalists in and outside his country Nepal and collaborating with experts from different professions to improve the quality of reporting.
From his home office in Kathmandu, he first answers the most important question we ask each other all around the world at the moment: how are you?
“So far I’m good. My family members are also fine, the only concern is that we recently had a baby, she is just six months old. So our main task is to take care of her and at the same time make sure that neither I nor any of the family members get infected with COVID-19.”
How is the situation in Nepal?
“Right now we’re having the lockdown in Nepal that has been going on for a bit more than a month now. We only go outside for essentials, if we require food for example. In the morning the shops are open, so we can buy vegetables and other things. My wife is working from home and I’m also working mostly from home but for some stories, I will go outside for filming. I make sure I’m taking a lot of precautions, like using the mask, wearing gloves, and also to keep the social distance. And I’m happy that the editors I’m working with are very careful about my health and the people I interview. They always make sure we don’t interview people that are a risk either for their or for my health. So we’re taking a lot of safety measures and when I return home I sanitize everything. And make sure that the gear, especially the cameras, the mics, and all these things are properly kept and properly sanitized with chemicals.”
“Being calm and being very aware of the situation is something that I learned during the Nepal earthquake. And not to panic too much and to understand that this will go ahead.”
Reporting in unpredictable situations
Rajneesh goes out twice a week, depending on the story and if it needs filming or photographing. He covered the Nepal earthquake in 2015, but experiences this crisis as something different: “We went through a lot of disasters and many earthquakes during that time. But maybe that was something that was seen, we could visualize it. Right now we can’t visualize this virus so it’s very unpredictable. And especially when the cases go up.”
What he learned from the earthquake reporting is to have situational awareness when going outside. “The earthquake in that sense was also unpredictable because we never knew if there was going to be an aftershock. Being calm and being very aware of the situation is something that I learned at that time. And not to panic too much and to understand that this will go ahead. Another thing I’ve learned is to focus the reporting on the most affected people. Because of the lockdown, many people in Nepal are not able to go back to their homes in rural areas and many migrant workers are still living outside. It’s important to have a more compassionate mind when we talk about people who are affected. The people matter the most. And in covering a disaster or a pandemic like this is, we need to be more strong and be very careful about the fake news and the misinformation that might come on social media and on the internet and be aware of it.”
Creating a better understanding of journalism
The journalist trained colleagues in his country in investigative reporting and built the Nepal Multimedia Investigative Journalism Network to cover underreported stories. They weekly discuss story scenarios and share experiences in online calls. Since last year Rajneesh has regularly organized one-day hackathons, called ‘Journathon’, where journalists come together with coders, designers, and health professionals to see what is missing in the reporting and what can be done to tell stories better. He planned one for COVID-19 as well.
“I started the Journathons last year, we did three so far. One on accountability, one on migration, and one on human trafficking. In the past, the participants built apps and designed websites and visualizations and other things. And in this one about COVID-19 we will focus on storytelling. Especially in Nepal, journalists don’t collaborate with designers, data journalists or experts much. There is a gap between how we perceive professionals and how they perceive us. There will be a better understanding if people learn how journalists work and it gives us a different perspective to have experts at the table. I think during disasters and a pandemic like this, it’s something that one journalist can’t do by himself. We need to unite. If we collaborate we get the expertise and information from health professionals and add our journalistic values to tell the stories in a much better way.”
The future of journalism in Nepal
Rajneesh’ latest stories were on how the police officers use the tools to arrest people if they are violating the lockdown. And about who takes care of the street animals in Kathmandu now everyone is in lockdown. Bhandari explains the importance of reporting about people who do good things in this crisis, like the frontline workers or activists, people who take extra steps to help people. And for his investigative work, he focuses on the story about migrant workers who are facing problems in and outside Nepal: “Especially because of the lockdown workers could not return home on time. Many of them are walking on the highways for days and weeks because there are no vehicles, they have to walk back to their houses. And at the same time, all the airports are closed so the migrant workers abroad, a big number works in Gulf countries, can’t return home. They face a lot of problems at the moment.”
The situation in Nepal seems under control, with thirty positive cases so far, and one person who recovered from the virus. But as Rajneesh explains, there have been only 7700 tests (as of April 18, 2020) so far and more testing is needed to see what the situation is. And it will take a lot of time for the country to recover from the financial losses due to this crisis. Some print media organizations already decided to publish solely online. For the future of journalism, Rajneesh is worried: “When I meet the journalists in rural areas, the major problem they’re facing is that the print editions shut down and many journalists don’t get paid because of this crisis. How media organizations cope and make it financially sustainable to go on, that will be challenging for journalists.”
“The stress level is there but I also do my yoga and breathing exercises in the mornings and evenings which I think is important to stay mentally and psychologically fit.”
COVID-19 is one of the most important stories in our lifetime as journalists
With passion projects like the ‘Journathon’, he gets some support through collaborations, but he hopes to get more funding in the future for the journalists who are part of the project. And Rajneesh hopes to collaborate and network with journalists outside of Nepal: “To keep the good journalism we’re doing, support each other in other ways than just funding. This is a crisis, let’s stay safe and at the same time do the good work and make sure that everyone is healthy and gets the right information.” Bhandari talks calmly about all the different projects and stories he is working on. It doesn’t mean he isn’t experiencing stress.
“There is stress because of what is happening and because people are locked down. Also because of the impact of all the stories we’re hearing and the responsibility of reporting in a good way. I think this is one of the most important stories we will report in our life as a journalist. So the stress level is there but I also do my yoga and breathing exercises in the mornings and evenings which I think is important to stay mentally and psychologically fit. It helps me to stay calm and decrease my stress levels. Not only for doing the stories but also to look after my family.”
Investigative multimedia journalist Rajneesh Bhandari is based in Kathmandu and works freelance for international news platforms. He tweets @RajneeshB