Welcome to our third Asia Undercovered Journalist Q&A. This week we feature Ramesh Bhushal, a Nepali journalist. He’s an environmentalist by education, journalist by profession, using his science background to cover the complex stories on the region’s climate and how it affects communities across his diverse country, which also happens to be at the forefront of the global climate and water challenges.
Currently Ramesh writes for The Third Pole, which focuses on water and environmental issues in Asia, and as South Asia Content Coordinator for Internews’ Earth Journalism Network, which has over 10,000 members globally.
He has been featured in our newsletter several times, most notably this feature for Nepal Times on the Budi Gandaki project, which would be Nepal’s largest hydropower dam, and this one on how many in the capital Kathmandu lack access to water, the legacy of mismanaged development from a generation ago.
Ramesh tells us about how he stumbled into radio and his path to becoming a full-time science journalist, and how he has balanced a desire to find new opportunities with the ongoing pressure to earn money and survive.
Daniela: When and why did you decide to become a journalist?
Ramesh: I usually say I became a science writer by accident. I was doing a Bachelor’s degree in around 2003, in Science. My mother had brought me from a remote village in western Nepal to the capital Kathmandu, and worked really hard to bring me to the city and put me to school. But it was also during the time where Nepal was coming out of being under an absolute monarchy – so it was a time when media was really growing. I heard a broadcast on the radio, a station asking for people to come and broadcast their talents. At the time everyone around me, professors, friends, they were all scientists, it was a bubble. When I thought about the radio opportunity, I realized that, wow, media outlets are powerful, you can really inform a large number of people about important issues.
So I went in, my idea was to MC a science program, really a niche back then. They didn’t have a lot of science experts working in the media. So I got in, stuck at it and went in every day to really just try and learn everything, and I was able to produce a demo for a show called Bishwo Bigyan (World Science). It was tough, working at the radio station for a few dollars, 13 to 14 hours a day, and there wasn’t much opportunity for development. I realized I couldn’t survive from it, and it wasn’t going to take me further. One day after I got an offer to cover the Everest Marathon, I just quit my job.
A friend of mine, who was working at the largest newspaper in Nepal, the Himalayan Times, suggested that I go and apply as a science writer there. So I went in, with no experience of ever writing a piece at all. I think what helped was really, that I came from a scientific background into journalism, and there were very few with that expertise.
How is the situation for journalists in Nepal, and what are some of the challenges you, or your fellow journalists, are facing?
Ramesh: Journalism is challenging, not a profession where you can earn much money. I have found that the reason people get into journalism is because they feel it has social value, and that you are doing something to contribute to society. If you write an article, or an opinion piece, you bring in information that helps people to understand this issue. The major challenge is, there is no security, no safety, no assurance of any future. I made it through by seeing where the opportunities were. I started doing things differently for example, investing more time in few larger stories and bringing together multimedia pieces, working with large data and so on.
Another challenge was around getting the information you need. It’s different from, let’s say, political reporting. When reporting on science and the environment, you have to have the capacity to understand the whole processes, for example how rivers are affected by climate change. It’s quite technical, but at the same time the information you need is difficult to get. For example when you are speaking to rural communities affected by these issues, they don’t necessarily understand the science behind these issues, but they have a lot of insight to offer, so you have to understand what to ask.
What are the unique challenges you face as a science writer in South Asia? Is it an issue when your stories overlap with/touch on politics and human rights?
Ramesh: There's often a huge conflict in between groups, pro-development and anti-development. For example, if you write about the risk of building hydropower, the social issue around the displacement of indigenous people – they would come back argue that there is a story of hope as well because after the hydropower is built, this place will be prosperous, the country will get a lot of energy. But the problem tends to be that even if hydropower is built, the community around is not getting the benefits, because those will be distributed through a separate process that will not reach the people.
I try to shed light on such realities. But then they say that you are persuaded by the international donors, you are pro American, you are pro European, or you are pro Chinese or you are pro Indian, or you are against India, and so on.
So, whilst people are predominantly concerned about the economy, I try to educate about the value of ecology as well, and how decisions are being made with little regard for the ecology or communities. Many journalists have been killed or tortured. for example in India, in Pakistan, it’s really tough because there is just a looming threat that somebody will come and beat you, or snatch your camera. If you get into the politics of natural resources, then you are in trouble.
How do you feel about traditional western media coverage of Nepal, or science/environment in South Asia? Is it adequate and/or accurate?
Ramesh: It is definitely not adequate. Western media has a kind of a global understanding. For example, if two people die on Mount Everest, that becomes news. But if a landslide kills 50 people in a rural community, it doesn't make it. So they have their own level of priorities. And I can understand that. But bottom line is, they have a really small focus. Plus when it comes to Nepal, it is all about India versus China. Or it’s about no dams versus dams, Everest, tigers or elephants and so on. There are a handful of issues that are retold many times, but I don't think they have been really digging more from our society to tell more complex stories to the greater world.
And I get it. A lot of times, a lot of journalists come here for a couple of weeks. They go back and write stories. It happens all over the world. Sometimes it is adequate. But many times factual accuracy is missing, or often times the angle is biased, or they want to play out a story between Asia and the West.
Do you have any advice for young journalists covering science and environmental issues from the region – how do you get heard in a world where non-Western news (and journalists) struggle to get attention globally?
Ramesh: There’s a need to tell the stories that are helpful for people to make decisions. And you're not doing that when you’re only reporting about politics. I think we need more people to understand this, within newsrooms and in journalism schools.
There is a lot to understand and write about on geography, natural resources, culture, and there is a lot happening. Now is the right time to tell the stories in a more profound, interesting way, because many of the environmental changes happening will ultimately harm you. So, I think anyone who just wants to report to the environment, don't panic, don't fear. It is about understanding the trees around you, the landscape around you, the rivers around you, the atmosphere around you, and telling their stories. We need to understand more, we need to invest more time, and try to see how things are happening. And ask the right questions to the authorities and bring in the perspective of people whose voices have not been heard.
There are ample opportunities, and I think new opportunities are coming in, because climate change is here.
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