Zela Chin
8 July 2024
Lydia Guo
8 July 2024

Paavan Mathema and Sonia Awale

JMSC scholarships gave two Nepalese women a springboard to change their country’s media

Two MJ graduates, who studied at the JMSC on full scholarship, are changing Nepal’s male-dominated media landscape: Paavan Mathema (MJ 2013), Agence France-Presse’s Kathmandu bureau chief, and Sonia Awale (MJ 2016), executive editor of Nepali Times, the country’s most respected English-language weekly. 

Both rose to their positions after working for years as reporters. 

Paavan interned at CNN in Hong Kong as a JMSC student. After graduating, she worked briefly at Nepalnews.com, one of Nepal’s first online news outlets. She then became an AFP correspondent in Kathmandu in 2014 and was appointed bureau chief last year. 

Two weeks into her new job, she covered a deadly avalanche on Everest that killed over a dozen people. “It was a big learning experience doing breaking news,” she recalled. “That was quick job training on how wire news agencies work, and how we cannot get things wrong, because of its wide and instant reach.” 

Paavan reporting from the Everest region in March 2020 about the mountaineering season that was canceled that year because of Covid and the impact of that cancellation on the community there

Paavan with some pupils after reporting about their school in western Nepal in 2019

She has since covered Nepal’s elections, a devastating earthquake in 2015, plane crashes and the Covid pandemic. 

“My advice is to be open to learning new skills, because it might come handy later,” said Paavan, who started learning multimedia reporting at the JMSC. “The video classes I took at the JMSC helped me explore another side of storytelling, and now video is one of my core skills.”

“We are a small team, so you are almost on your toes all the time, and have to be ready if anything comes up,” she said. “My focus is to tell stories about Nepal that need to be out, but don’t always get attention globally.” Her recent feature story about how Nepali mercenaries are fighting for Russia in Ukraine was read around the world.

Sonia started out as a reporter covering environmental and health issues at Nepali Times. She had a public health degree, but not formal journalism training, so moving to Hong Kong to become a full-time JMSC student opened up new avenues of learning. 

“It was the first time I learnt about news production for different formats, data journalism,” Sonia said. “I started enjoying video editing after all the hours and hours I spent in the lab at the JMSC.”

Since rejoining Nepali Times after graduation, Sonia has worked on a number of interactive projects. One involved tracking air pollution in Kathmandu, one of the most polluted cities in the world. For another, she was part of an international team that investigated a cross-border illegal wildlife trade, which won several awards

Sonia at her desk in the Nepali Times newsroom in Kathmandu

Sonia conducting an interview on the impact of climate change on the Himalayas

Her new role as executive editor requires her to work closely with other departments, from marketing to management. The most eye-opening experience was in seeing the business side of running a newsroom, especially at a time when traditional advertising sources are drying up and traditional media compete with social media. 

Paavan’s and Sonia’s leadership roles reflect a gradual change in Nepal which, like many South Asian nations, has a male-dominated media landscape. 

There are few women in newsroom leadership roles, but progress is happening slowly. When Paavan walks into a room full of male editors, there are a handful of women asserting their presence there, too. 

However, there are still challenges in accessing sources and feeling like they are part of a community. 

“The space we work in is very male dominated and it’s hard to break through and be one of them,” Paavan said. 

Sonia has also been in situations where she is made to feel out of place as a woman leading a newsroom. 

“It’s in their tone and attitude towards me,” she said. “I have felt undermined not just by my sources, but also by fellow male editors because of who I am.”

She hopes people will eventually stop being amused by the presence of a female editor, and treat her like an equal. She frequently declines invitations to media events because she is tired of being “tokenized” as the only woman. 

“News outlets should know by now that simply giving women journalists a title and position isn’t enough. They need support and resources to build and lead a solid team,” she said. “Workplaces need to ensure they have a working environment where women journalists can thrive.” 

Sonia interviewing farmers in Kanchanpur in western Nepal in 2019

Sonia interviewing a women in Kavre, Nepal, about springs drying up in her village in 2017

Her new role as executive editor requires her to work closely with other departments, from marketing to management. The most eye-opening experience was in seeing the business side of running a newsroom, especially at a time when traditional advertising sources are drying up and traditional media compete with social media. 

Paavan’s and Sonia’s leadership roles reflect a gradual change in Nepal which, like many South Asian nations, has a male-dominated media landscape. 

There are few women in newsroom leadership roles, but progress is happening slowly. When Paavan walks into a room full of male editors, there are a handful of women asserting their presence there, too. 

However, there are still challenges in accessing sources and feeling like they are part of a community.