The community connection

Across Nepal, a cohort of radio journalists trained under a UNICEF-ACORAB initiative are finding renewed purpose in engaging the voices of the communities they serve and battling misinformation amidst the COVID-19 crisis

Kundan Raj Acharya
20 April 2022
Neeru Thapa
Photo courtesy: Neeru Thapa

Nepal: Neeru Thapa has been working as a radio journalist in Rupandehi District in western Nepal for close to a decade now. However, despite being a recognizable voice in her community, most of Neeru’s time at Radio Mukti FM had been spent within the walls of the studio without a great deal of direct contact with the actual people and families she was reporting on.

“I didn’t have much exposure,” she admits. “I would just read the news that colleagues had prepared and make a few phone calls to get audio bites – I could have been doing so much more.”

This realization had swiftly dawned on Neeru during her participation in an orientation for radio journalists organized by UNICEF in partnership with the Association of Community Radio Broadcasting (ACORAB) Nepal in late 2021. Neeru had been among 59 journalists across the nation who were trained under the initiative, primarily focused on better equipping local mediapersons to interact with the communities they serve, and to systematically collect and share concerns about COVID-19 and various related issues.

For Neeru, the experience was entirely new. During her first interactions with the community, as mandated by the training, she had been worried about how to talk to a large group, whether she would be able to establish rapport. And many of the community members too had seemed skeptical of how she could help air their concerns.

“But over time, as the discussions went on, they started to ask me if I could share their voices,” she says. “That was very motivating for me.”

Neeru interviewing community members in Butwal in Rupandehi District in western Nepal
Photo courtesy: Neeru Thapa
Radio journalist Neeru Thapa (second from right) interviewing community members in Butwal in Rupandehi District in western Nepal

Others in the cohort report similar revelations. Radio journalist Dambar Bahadur Bohara from Baitadi District in far-western Nepal recalls how he had walked two hours to visit a remote community for an interaction, where he found out that villagers had never before met a journalist.

“They were so excited to talk to me,” Dambar says. “They had so many stories to tell and issues to raise, but they just didn’t have access to the media, and no one had approached them before. They felt that the media wasn’t interested in them.”

Dambar says meeting and talking to the community, and the warm welcome he received, was one of the best experiences of his professional life. “The discussion was so emotional… it touched my heart.”

This image shows Dambar Bahadur Bohara in the studio
Photo courtesy: Dambar Bahadur Bohara

Strengthened social listening and response

Throughout the prolonged COVID-19 period, the spread of misinformation about the disease has posed an enormous challenge to risk communication efforts across the world, and Nepal has not been spared. While, on one hand, there was the crucial need to disseminate life-saving information about preventive measures, vaccination, testing and treatment to people, on the other hand, the situation has also called for focused attention from the Government of Nepal – and partners like UNICEF working in COVID-19 prevention and response – towards countering these rumours.

Several mechanisms were set up in this regard, including a government call center designed to collect and log questions and concerns from the public. These would then inform the development of content to be shared extensively across various media, including radio, television, print and digital platforms. Despite this, however, a continued need was felt to dig deeper and further, especially when it came to hard-to-reach areas where people do not have easy access to trusted sources of information, potentially creating breeding grounds for myths and dangerous falsehoods related to COVID-19.

It was in this context, to strengthen the overall social listening and response efforts, and recognizing the expansive reach that radio continues to enjoy in Nepal, that UNICEF had partnered with ACORAB, an umbrella organization encompassing a wide network of community radio stations nationwide.

Journalist Shanti Gurung interviews community members
Photo courtesy: Shanti Gurung
Radio journalist Shanti Gurung (far right) interviews community members in Ilam District in eastern Nepal.

Under the project, radio journalists rom around the country were trained in two batches in November and December 2021. They were oriented on facilitating discussions in their respective communities, and on using the insights gained therein to prepare targeted reports to debunk prevalent rumours and encourage COVID-19 preventive behaviours. Each of the 59 journalists were required to conduct at least 16 community interactions leading up to February 2022, while continuing to share their experiences and learnings through a Messenger group that had been set up to include all participants, as well as UNICEF and ACORAB representatives.

Having this latter channel was a great tool for easing communication and building camaraderie among cohort members, according to Dambar. “The Messenger group kept us aware of different issues unfolding across all our different working regions,” he says.

Finding confidence as journalists

The feedback from journalists participating in the project has been overwhelmingly positive.

“The interactions helped to promote a two-way communication with the community, where we were able to gather their perspectives on current issues, as well as provide them the needed relevant information,” says Shanti Gurung, radio journalist from Ilam District in the country’s east.

This is echoed by Shova Humagain, another radio journalist from Kavrepalanchowk District in central Nepal, who had learned through a discussion in one community that some people had been having issues accessing the COVID-19 vaccine because of lack of national IDs. There was a second case in another village of persons with disability who had been missed out in the vaccine drive because of mobility restrictions. After she aired these two stories, the local governments in both communities had acted fast to conduct outreach and ensure that vaccines were made available to all.

Participants have also expressed feeling much more confident in their skills as journalists after having gone through the training, as well as confronting some of their own preconceived notions about the about the needs and challenges of the community.

Neeru, for example, had been conducting a meeting among members of a marginalized community in Navadurga Municipality, where the key issue raised by a group of women was the discrimination they were facing in selling milk in the bazaar, hampering their livelihood. “It was clear to me that even more than COVID-19, this injustice they were suffering was a pressing issue, and we quickly worked on a report that was widely broadcast,” Neeru says.

Dambar conducting an interaction with students
Photo courtesy: Dambar Bahadur Bohara
Radio journalist Dambar Bahadur Bohara (far left) interacting with school children.

Key out of all the learnings for the cohort has been the realization and motivation that they must put communities front and center in all their efforts.

“The training reminded me of the true purpose of my work as a community-based journalist outside of the confines of the studio,” says Dambar. “It’s to engage with real people and raise their voices – especially those that are so far unheard.”