Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Digital Bubble

Nitya Pandey

SEP 14 – It was an unusual retreat of sorts that recently came to an end at the Hotel Mandap in Thamel. Five prominent journalists had been part of a three-day ‘seclusion’ project—the New Media Gufa 2012—organised by the Media Foundation, which concluded on September 10. The professionals were made to conduct their day-to-day work while sequestered in the hotel’s premises, but with a catch—they had to rely entirely on social networking sites to do so. A story each was to be prepared on climate change, foreign employment, food shortage, street children and Internet penetration, all within 72 hours, and without the luxury of calling up or meeting sources in person.

Although one might be tempted to assume that this is a novel concept, the world had already had a taste of the model when a similar project was conducted in France a few years ago, for the duration of which participants were held at an isolated farm for five days. “The beauty of our endeavour lies in attempting to analyse rural areas from the heart of the Capital,” explains Dr Dharma Adhikari, the brain behind the project, a co-initiator of the Media Foundation, and an early online journalist who had pioneered ‘link journalism’ in Nepal—a form of collaborative reporting wherein external web links are provided within stories to offer more elaborative information on the subject—with

The five Gufa Explorers spent their days huddled over their computers, working on their respective stories. Cell phone use was banned except for Skyping, Tweeting or Facebooking. Keshav Koirala, an active social media user, currently with the online department at The Himalayan Times, prepared a report on the impact of climate change in the Everest region, while Arun Rai, the chief of, wrote about street children in Dharan. As challenging as the project proved to be, all participants describe it as one of the most memorable experiences they’ve had, one that compelled them to be more inventive and resourceful than they’d ever thought possible. “It was very engaging,” says Guna Raj Luitel, an eminent print journalist who has worked for Kantipur, Annapurna Post, and Nagarik dailies. “My piece was on the extent of Internet infiltration in Jumla. So, anyone who listed it as their hometown, I added to my friend list. I was surprised how many contacts that offered up.”

Of course, it wasn’t always chipper in the Gufa. Adhikari says that apart from demonstrating the uses of new media as effective tools in sourcing and investigative reporting, the objective of the project was also to test the journalists on a more human level. “They begged, pleaded, and even wept in there,” he says. “It was interesting to witness what escaped their lips under round-theclock surveillance. The most frequent words were ‘I must call somebody.’” The time constraint and lack of timely responses from sources were also what exasperated most participants.

“I was very sleep deprived,” says Rajneesh Bhandari—a multimedia journalist and the team leader of, an international online website—who is currently associated with Kantipur Television. His story was on the impact of foreign employment in Hetauda, the consequences of which include suicides, divorces, and broken homes. Bhandari had received some rather mixed responses during his research; while many were reluctant to talk about their personal lives, some replied to his tweets with lengthy documents. He says that this is perhaps a sign of how for a growing number of people, it is easier to be outspoken on an online portal rather than in person.

Binu Subedi, the only female participant, was the first to finish her assignment. A broadcast media reporter and programme producer, presently working with the Community Information Network (CIN)—one of the largest radio networks in Nepal—Subedi’s area of research was food alternatives in the Karnali region. Interestingly, while her emails to sources in Karnali were promptly replied to, those disseminated within the Capital remained unanswered.

Besides the five Explorers, the project also included three Gufa Researchers, who observed and recorded the event. One of these, Hem Raj Kafle, an assistant professor at the Department of Languages and Mass Communication of the School of Arts, Kathmandu University, expresses his astonishment at how efficient the journalists proved to be. “It was like being in a real newsroom,” he says. “There were constant discussions and debates, and incredible maximisation of seemingly limited resources.”

What the project sought to prove—and what it achieved in doing—was to demonstrate the power of social networking sites, not just as a means of connecting to friends and family on a personal level, but with regards to the possibilities they offer to research or education. And while Nepal is a long way from boasting expansive Internet reach the likes of developed nations, it is true nonetheless that connectivity is on the rise, and new media will have an increasing and complex influence on our lives, as well our view of the rest of the world. As Adhikari puts it: “It is not an age of reality anymore, but the age of media-ty.”

Pandey is a freelance writer currently pursuing her masters in English from IACER

The Kathmandu Post, 15 September 2012 
Image version is here