Balancing freedom and responsibility: Jeevan Bhandari on the emergence of new media and challenges ahead 

Jeevan Bhandari believes internet-based platforms should be responsible when preparing content as a huge chunk of people who may not be discerning enough to differentiate facts from disinformation take such content as a source of primary information

NL Today

  • Read Time 4 min.

Kathmandu: There is an ongoing debate: Whether internet-based platforms are a boon or a bane for society. The answer is not easy. There are mixed reactions to the issues.

With the rising number of social media users across the country, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, and other social media channels have emerged as new platforms. These platforms have helped disseminate information and fact-based stories, but they have also become the means to spread disinformation and false narratives to the public.

The trend has emerged in such a way that even positive contributions through such platforms have remained under the shadow. In Nepal, internet-based platforms, especially the YouTube channels, have been disseminating false narratives and irrational content. As YouTube platforms started posting irrational content just to gain more views and followers, the government has already started to monitor internet-based platforms in a bid to curb the flow of negative and irrational content to the public.

As such practices are rampant, Jeevan Bhandari, a journalist with more than a decade of experience, realized the need for a debate on the issue. Bhandari, currently associated with Rastriya Samachar Samiti–a state-owned news agency–says, “If we, as journalists, do not start debates on the ethical aspect of contents of YouTube and other internet-based platforms, the overall freedom of expression might come under scrutiny.”

It is a reality that internet-based platforms, especially YouTube, have a wide reach across the country, he says. “But the challenge is that readers and viewers who may not be discerning enough to differentiate facts from disinformation take such content as a source of primary information.”

This has created a situation of worry as misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda are in the full swing on such platforms, he told Nepal Live Today.

The internet-based platforms, according to Bhandari, have been a boon for society in terms of getting information. “But have the people, especially those who are not able to differentiate facts and misinformation, benefitted from these platforms? The answer is a big NO!”

In a country like Nepal, where internet penetration has an impressive growth, internet-based platforms play a huge role in raising awareness among the public, especially in the rural region where there is a limited reach of mainstream media. “But in Nepal, despite a huge scope of such platforms, disinformation and irrational contents are disseminated to the public,” said Bhandari, giving an example of how YouTubers created false stories about the US-funded Millennium Challenge Compact (MCC).

Jeevan believes that this is not a good sign. “The issue is also connected to rights to freedom of expression which makes it complicated. If content creators produce such content, the administration and law implementing bodies will definitely interfere, and that is when internet-based platforms can face problems. So the platforms themselves have to be more sensible when it comes to creating new content,” he said.

In order to launch an organized campaign for responsible social media platforms, he initiated Online TV Journalists Association of Nepal, an association of more than 500 online TV operators and presenters across the country.

So what does the organization do? “The main objective of the association is to train online TV operators about the responsibility to maintain minimum ethical standards.”

Our main theme is only self-correction can help strengthen the voice of freedom and liberties, he shares. In this regard, the organization has already prepared a self-regulation guideline. “More than 500 members are now oriented to the code of ethics. We believe that this is a first move to make the internet-based platforms more reliable and accountable.”

In the long run, the organization aims to launch a digital literacy campaign, he adds. We need to explore a long-term solution timely, he adds.

There should be media literacy campaigns for creating awareness among people about misinformation and disinformation to make them able to filter the content, he said, adding that the trend will eventually fade if such content fails to get viewers and isn’t monetized.

According to him, rights and responsibility should go hand in hand. If online content creators fail to abide by the ethical values, they will not be in the position to claim their rights too. “If such content creators lose reputation and credibility in the society, there will be unimaginable effects on the overall freedom of expression situation.”

Jeevan is also involved in other freedom of expression and association campaigns. Recently, he led a campaign to release a Nepali journalist Umakant Pande who is in police custody since February 15, 2022, for his social media post. 

“Pande was arrested because his post was critical to the Embassy of Nepal in UAE. Instead of protecting citizens, the UAE embassy handed him over to the UAE security officials,” Bhandari told Nepal Live Today. “We should not tolerate any kind of activities–whether from powerful authorities or from other parties–if they are against the spirit of freedom of people to criticize the authority.”

An emerging face in Nepal’s freedom and justice movement, Jeevan sometimes faces challenges in this journey. “One needs to dare to speak out even against one’s own people when we are in the rights and justice movement,” he shares. “Rights advocates always take the side of justice, freedom, rights. In the course of doing so, we must have courage even to speak out against our own people, if they are on the wrong side.”

When asked why Nepalis are so obsessed with internet-based platforms rather than mainstream media for news and information, Bhandari said, “Accessibility! You can access  social media anytime, unlike mainstream television and newspapers. The reach of mainstream online portals is only high in core cities.” This is why, he says, our focus should be on quality journalism. “Now the focus should be on quality journalism whether it is in mainstream or other internet-based platforms,” he concluded.