Veteran Nepalese journalist Deepak Adhikari takes us through his life journey from proofreading to investigative journalism and fact checking. Highlighting the nexus between politics and business, Adhikari takes us through the challenges and satisfactions in this line of work, as well as the challenges while giving advice to future investigators.
It's really hard to explain what we do to lay people and I think this is a crisis facing journalism because we don't explain our work and it kind of gives off an aura of mystery. I have an eight year old daughter. Sometimes I take her to my presentations and my office to see what I'm doing, and she's fairly updated about what I do. But the larger society, even my relatives either, they don't want to hear about the process because it's not pleasant - You have to go to a dark room and then you spend hours collecting documents. You have to wait for hours for a source to appear.
About the speaker
Deepak Adhikari, is a freelance journalist, fact-checker, and media trainer based in Nepal. He is currently the editor of NepalCheck.Org, a fact-checking website in Nepal. Prior to this role, he served as the editor at South Asia Check, a pioneering fact-checking outlet in the region.
With over a decade of experience in reporting for global news agencies like AFP and dpa from Nepal, Adhikari has also worked as a freelancer for various renowned publications, including The New York Times, Al Jazeera English, Nikkei Asia, The Caravan, and Himal Southasian. He has contributed investigative stories to the Center for Investigative Journalism-Nepal and the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).
I did not want to be a journalist when I graduated from school. I wanted to be a writer, but I did not know how to be one. I come from outside Kathmandu, it's a place in Eastern Nepal. So, I did not have colleges in my hometown, we did not even have a library there; but I was really a voracious reader. And I was not supposed to be a journalist, you know, my family wanted me to be an engineer or doctor - that's the professions the society really admires. So I left for Kathmandu. After I graduated, I joined a local newspaper for an internship. So as soon as I joined as an intern, they hired me as proofreader because I was good at Nepali language. So I started from there and gradually I learned how to write news and features and that's how I started.
I'm Deepak Adhikari, I'm a journalist based in Kathmandu, Nepal. I've been in journalism for the last 20 years. I have written for international publications like New York Times, Guardian, Time Magazine, AlJazeera, Caravan Magazine in India and Himal Southasian Magazine based out of Kathmandu.
Over the years, I have written on several topics ranging from, you know, the evolution of political system in Nepal, human rights, the maoist insurgency, Nepal's foreign policy, you know, energy crisis, environment and issues like corruption and tax evasion. But over the last three years, I have mostly focused on fact checking and digital investigation.
In early 2020, I joined South Asia Check, which is South Asia's first fact checking platform. Soon after I joined South Asia Check, the Covid 19 pandemic started to spread around the world. And so in a way COVID pandemic cut out my job for me because, you know, the problem of mis, and, disinformation was so, you know, wide and such a huge phenomenon that, you know, everyone was affected.
It was really an intensive experience for me, but I learned a lot about conspiracy theories, about different kinds of false claims from hoaxes to, you know, disinformation to malinformation.
In Nepal, the business groups have colluded with the politicians to exploit the state resources or, you know, to take advantage of the loopholes, because the country is unstable and, you know, and poor, and its institutions are not as strong as they should be. So, there is obviously, you know, a lot of investigation, which should be towards this nexus between politics and business.
In July 2022, I left South Asia Check and we gathered a group of Nepalese journalists and we launched Nepal Check, which is a bilingual platform. And we have fact checked misinformation around elections - which took place on November 20. This election was interesting because there's so much, you know, manipulated photos and what is called shallow fake - where there are out of context videos. You have a short clip of a long video, and it's several years old and you strip off the context - you remove the context. And there are a lot of election mis and disinformation because if you are a candidate, you know, you use social media to reach to people. And also those disinformers who want to spread mis and disinformation; they also joined these platforms because, if you have some skills, you can easily manipulate, you know, you can easily influence people.
And it was really insightful for me as well, because I had been fact checked myself for long form stories for Caravan magazine and all this, but I had never done the kind of fact checking that we do now, which is what I call post-publication fact checking - when something is already out, when something has already been published on social media, on, you know, TV or radio, and we start fact checking that.
As I said, I've been a journalist for 20 years. In early 2000, when I was working at Nepal Magazine, I used to be an investigative reporter. I investigated human trafficking, organ trafficking, sex trafficking and other kinds of crimes. But, you know, for many years afterwards, I mostly focused on long form narratives, but in 2019 I was involved in Nepal leaks. I worked as part of a team that published five stories based on data from Panama Papers and Paradise Papers; so that, reinforced or in a way, reminded me, the potential of investigative journalism. So, after being part of that project, I decided to start, restart investigation into big companies, into large corporations because there are so many stories of tax evasion, money laundering, and financial crimes.
In 2021, we published a major investigation on Ncell, which is Nepal's largest telecom company, and we received a lot of positive feedback for those stories. There are two stories, which unearth new information about the deals and the tax evasion and the foreign connections and other issues around financial crime.
I also focused on digital investigation, investigating false claims and trying to hold powerful people to account. Because the way politics and the media work in Nepal is you provide space to politicians, their speeches, their interviews without scrutiny, without fact checking, without countering their claims, you know, in a way, giving them free spaces, which means you become complicit in spreading the lies.
But because of the way the mainstream media functions, which is like, you know, supported by corporate, there's always a problem. You know, you cannot do these stories, there are red lines, which you cannot cross as a corporate house. And it's still in Nepal, it's the corporate media that really, you know, that is widely read and I think that's bad news for us, and that's the reason we should really adopt the nonprofit model.
I'll look for two things in a story. First is impact, what would be the implication of this story? Second is whether it's in public interest or not. For example, you know, tax evasion, because if a business man evades tax, someone may not be able to send his or her daughter to school.
I want to do stories which have really huge implications. You know, for example, our last story on this telecom company, we were invited to share our insight with the government officers. Our reporting was really helpful for them to investigate. So, you know, although investigative reporting in itself is really hard and you know, sometimes, you really struggle to expand things because things are usually complicated but it reaches to people like the government officials, investigative agencies, prosecutors, and then you can draw a lot of satisfaction from that.
There hasn't been much work in terms of investigative journalism in Nepal, and there are so many stories, you know, it'll take your lifetime to do all these stories.
So there are several challenges, for example, you really struggle to find the archival material because the newspapers and the online platforms, they don't maintain their archives. Then our work becomes really difficult because to fact check something, to document something you need evidence. Two other challenges; one is we don't have skillful reporters because in order to investigate something you really have to have topnotch skill. For example, if you are investigating a company, a problematic company, you need to know how to read financial accounts, corporate filings, you know, if you want to follow the money, you have to really know how these financial systems work.
Second is, again, financial resources because investigative journalism is an expensive pursuit. You have to spend a lot of time, it's time consuming. And, as someone with a family like me, you know, you also have to pay your bills. So how do you balance that, between paying your bills and spending a lot of time on your stories. Even after spending a year, there may not be a story because you don't have solid evidence. You may not be able to uncover new information, or pin down the wrongdoing, because of the way it works, because the business world is really complicated, you know?
Also like you have to spend a lot of time cultivating sources. For example, you start investigating a new issue, and then you have to find, there is a saying, you know, it takes a village. So in order to investigate a big story you have to create a network of sources of collaborators- your fellow journalists. And working in a team is really difficult because everyone is not in the same place you know; everyone has their own shortcomings.
And there are challenges like physical threats and digital threats. Because as an investigative journalist so much of your work you do in digital space, you know, your Email, your laptop, your communication with sources. So the digital threat is already there. You may be targeted by these people whose wrongdoing you are exposing, because you are online, you are on social media; they may follow you, even they may come to your home, you know? I'm not just talking about me, you know, all the other journalists in countries like Nepal and even in other parts of the world, they always face these kinds of problems of digital and physical threat.
See, it's really hard to explain what we do to lay people and I think this is a crisis facing journalism because we don't explain our work and it kind of gives an aura of mystery. I have an eight year old daughter. Sometimes I take her to my presentations and my office to see what I'm doing, and she's fairly updated about what I do. But the larger society, even my relatives either, don't want to hear about the process because it's not pleasant - You have to go to a dark room and then you spend hours collecting documents. You have to wait for hours for a source to appear. You know, you wait at your house. My relatives often find me, engrossed in a book or spending so much time behind a computer and they don't know what this guy is doing because this work doesn't show immediately takes months, years.
So, to the ordinary people, what I say is, if we don't do stories, if we don't expose this, you know, these people who are criminals who have done the wrongdoings, they would go unpunished, there will be impunity.
Many, many years ago, I exposed a sand mafia for a weekly Newspaper in Nepal, in Nepali language and it was a weekly newspaper and the day the story was published, a man barged into my room and asked for the name of the reporter. He did not recognize me and when he yelled at me “Are you Deepak Adhikari?” I just, I think I gave another name, I don't remember it now. But then he was convinced that I was not the guy and he threatened and went back. So that was the scariest situation for me because the guy who was exposed in my report was right there in my office threatening me. But somehow I think it was luck and my instinct that I got away with it.
Actually, I don't share these things with my family. Hopefully they'll not listen to this podcast. But, you know, it encourages me because there is satisfaction in exposing the wrongdoing. Something that is invisible, that is hidden, and needs to be exposed, and holding these powerful people; not only politicians, but also business people and public figures to account. You know, I think, you are doing a public service in journalism, where you are helping build evidence for investigative agencies.
We are in a business of thinking, and when you don't think much your stories are just, you know, maybe written by a robot. It doesn't have that empathy. It doesn't have emotions. It doesn't connect to people. So, I want to do more fact checks. I also want to do longform stories because it's been several years. So, I want to travel and talk to people and do more stories on the ground reporting where you can bring the nuances, go to new places and write about them. Train more young people on investigative journalism and fact checking.
So I think the first thing is to be really curious about anything. Not take things for granted, be curious, listen to people, be like a sponge. Try to get whatever, whether you are in a party talking to people or traveling in a new place, or, you know, meeting a new person. Always be curious and you may bump into the story at any time, anywhere. But, be also really thorough about your work. Be really meticulous in the way you maintain your files, your record, your findings, you know, your information. Be really, be well organized. Be tech savvy. Use all the digital tools and techniques so that your work becomes easier. And always think about storytelling because I think that's important. It's not enough for you to have new information. How do you present that new information, so that readers can relate to it? Readers are moved by the story. I think that's fundamental. That is key to becoming a good journalist.
The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech.
Interview, Production and Sound Design by Mariam Aboughazi.
Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Lieke Ploeger, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.
Theme Music by Wael Eskandar.
Headway by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution License (CC BY). Cendres by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License (CC BY-NC). Illumination by Kai Engel, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial License (CC BY-NC). Forgive and Forget by Siddhartha Corsus, Free Music Archive, licensed under a Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC).
Illustration by Ann Kiernan
With support from