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Issue 37

Hear No Evil

By Carey L. Biron

Since the February 1, 2005 coup d’etat staged by Nepal’s King Gyanendra, the government has delivered an unprecedented clampdown on civil liberties. The disintegration has been particularly noticeable — and well documented — in its impact on Nepali press freedoms. Nepal’s media was notably lively and open the decade prior to the crowning of Gyanendra in 2001, following a massacre at the royal palace by then-Crown Prince Dipendra. According to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), over half of the world’s cases of censorship in 2005 took place in Nepal.

Leading up to this year’s anniversary of Gyanendra’s coup, the nation saw near-daily and increasingly violent pro-democracy street demonstrations, with over 150,000 people eventually gathering in a small town in southwestern Nepal in mid-January. The sight of such a mass assembly frightened the government enough for it to call a full-day curfew to thwart a planned capital demonstration, even though full-night curfews were already in place.

Just over a week later Nepal held its first municipal elections in seven years. Called by the king as an attempt to soften his autocratic image in the international community, the turnout was barely 20 percent and the elections were widely seen as a sham. A week after the polls, however, the Nepali Supreme Court scrapped the Royal Commission for Corruption Control (RCCC), a controversial government body set up in the wake of last year’s royal takeover which had been used to jail, among others, the country’s former prime minister on charges of embezzlement. The bombshell decision has been seen as a distinct message to the palace that it is still not above the constitution — a positive step, but one that is not likely to help the citizens of Nepal in any tangible manner in the near future.

Even while the RCCC was being disbanded, however, the Broadcast Authority Ordinance (BAO) was being secretly set up,  which would make permanent laws that have severely muzzled Nepal’s media establishment — both independent and commercial. Critics of the legislation say it will be especially disastrous for the country’s pioneering independent radio movement.

Many also worry that the BAO will force the closures of community broadcasters through significantly raised registration fees. All of this is having a drastic effect on a country that had recently made dramatic free-press achievements in a relatively short period of time. Prior to the royal takeover, Nepal’s community radio movement had been one of the most active and diverse anywhere in Asia.

The Only Media

Nepal ushered in democratic reforms in 1990, and the following decade saw an explosion of new media initiatives. Rabble-rousing presses sprung up, as did television projects and the first independent, public-service radio station in all of South Asia. When Radio Sagarmatha began broadcasting in 1997, Ghamaraj Luintel was the first one to introduce the new station on the air.

“National radio only aired the voice of ministers, secretaries, and other highly profiled persons,” he recalled during an interview with Clamor at his Sagarmatha office. “But we broadcasted many problems of shoemakers, of sweepers, of other persons — those kinds of issues.” This niche was wide open: the airwaves had been the exclusive realm of government broadcaster Radio Nepal ever since the introduction of radio into the country in the 1940s.

Luintel says that while people did listen to the station — the country’s only major radio broadcast — Radio Nepal was unable to win over many of the Nepali people. “Radio Nepal was written language, but our language was not written; it was oral language,” Luintel said. “In our tradition, there was a long history of oral communication because many ceremonies told many stories; grandmothers told many stories to their children. So we begin to revive that history.”
Based on this low-key approach, the success of Radio Sagarmatha (the Nepali name for Mount Everest) soon had its founders, like Luintel, touring the country, teaching workshops on how to set up independent broadcasts. Through 2003, the last licensing period, 56 radio stations had been set up throughout the country, reaching about 65 percent of the population. There were also other important ground realities that made Nepal such a ready market for small-scale radio initiatives. Radio Sagarmatha’s first programming director, Raghu Mainali, said that the introduction of localized radio broadcasts into Nepal — one of the world’s most isolated and illiterate countries — was a perfect fit for its rural communities.

“They find a kind of recognition — cultural recognition, language recognition, and caste recognition,” he said. “It creates a kind of social harmony in between different caste and gender and other ethnic groups. So it creates a local identity, people feel their ownership. That’s why it’s become very popular.”

Nepal is also a prime environment to emphasize radio’s inherent democracy as a news or entertainment medium. In addition to a literacy rate of less than 54 percent — sure to be even lower outside of the few urban centers — only 20 percent of the country receives electricity. Print materials can take up to seven days to reach some of the mountain districts. “This kind of situation creates a vacuum of information,” Mainali said. “In so many parts of the country, radio is not ‘alternative media’ — it’s the only media.”

The Save Independent Radio Movement

During the royal takeover, radio stations were some of the first to feel the effects. Radio Sagarmatha and scores of others were overrun by soldiers and government officials, banned from broadcasting news of any kind. “First we got the physical directives,” Mainali recalled. “Army people came to the station. They threatened us not to broadcast anything except for music.”

“They controlled with guns!” Luintel confirmed. “If you are the presenter, they are pointing at you, with the gun, from the control room to the studio. We don’t know why!” The official ban on broadcasting news continued for three months, although unofficially it continues to this day. Luintel recalls that the inability to relay any news in the aftermath of an event as monumental as a royal coup led to some bizarre broadcasts.

“We discussed only the harvesting,” he laughed loudly, with a lingering sense of disbelief. “Or the planting, and sometimes about farming.”  When discussion of politics is banned, nearly every topic turns political: “You can’t make a program of human rights. You can’t make a program of transference or good governance. You can’t make a program on development, because there are so many political issues in development.”

After three months, Luintel, Mainali, and other radio advocates formed the Save Independent Radio Movement (SIRM). Last December, SIRM won an award from Reporters Without Borders as the country’s “best press-defender,” which Mainali says is partially due to its creative protests. “One example: our program was to hand over a coconut to the monkey,” he recalled, with excitement. “In Nepali, there is a very popular proverb: coconuts in the monkey’s hand. It’s very symbolic. Monkey is the government and coconut is the radio.”

Last July, SIRM also organized a countrywide street ballot, asking people whether or not they wanted news on FM radio. Over the course of a single hour, Mainali reports, more than 50,000 people voted, with 98 percent in favor of increased radio news.

The government’s crackdown on news has spread far beyond radio and affects the entirety of Nepali journalists, says RB Khatry, the executive director of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ). FNJ organized a conference on the one-year anniversary of the king’s takeover to discuss the events of the previous year. The daylong meeting started with an unannounced (though not unexpected) televised speech by King Gyanendra to the nation, wherein he claimed that democracy had been strengthened under his year of royal rule. The conference culminated with a public march, which ended 10 minutes after it began when riot police blasted the marching journalists with water cannons and carted more than 30 of them off to jail.

“What sort of press freedom can you expect in a country where army officers sit in the chairs of editors?” asked Khatry.

Outlawing Bad News

After the draconian Media Ordinance was quietly passed last November, the government lost a series of court cases filed by SIRM. The regime’s initial silence has now manifested itself in the new Broadcast Authority Ordinance, due to come into effect in spring 2006. The government has been crafting the new legislation in such secrecy that few have even seen its potential provisions. Complaining that Nepal’s radio market is already flooded, the BAO would also raise licensing fees up to 40 times the current rate in a stated effort to discourage the opening of new radio stations. A 500-watt station would be forced to pay regular registration fees of up to the equivalent of $115,000 — a prohibitively large sum.

Even without the registration hike, Radio Sagarmatha has already seen massive cuts in its revenue stream — a drastic situation for South Asia’s only public station, and one entirely untenable for the country’s smaller community broadcasters. When listeners were no longer hearing what they wanted to hear, says Ghamaraj Luintel, they simply turned their radios off. Even though Sagarmatha is currently broadcasting news — albeit only items which do not directly discuss the king or his family — that dent has yet to rebound.

“They only want to stop new community radio stations,” emphasized Luintel. “After that ordinance, only big business houses can establish radio stations. . . . And if businesspeople hold radio stations, then the community can’t share their experiences and problems. There won’t be any pro-public radio stations.”

At an inaugural “interaction” between government and private-sector representatives on the BAO in late February, the state Information and Communication minister said that news broadcasts on FM stations had led to “instability and confusion” in Nepal. The new Broadcast Authority, he said, would not be a governmental attempt to control the media, but to “safeguard professionalism.”

At the moment, however, all that Raghu Mainali sees is a Nepali citizenry that is unable to get the information it needs — particularly in an ongoing situation of poverty, warfare, government crackdown and insurgency. The resulting information void, he says, is exactly what leads to the minister’s ideas of instability and confusion.

“Two effects are there,” he noted. “One is, if there is a vacuum, the vacuum is filled by rumors, which create a terror within the society and they feel insecure. The other thing is, when they don’t get proper news or information, the people can’t decide properly where to go, when to go, and what to do. They can’t think for the future — they’ve lost their ontological need. They lose all of their hopes and become more immobilized, because it’s a hopeless situation. That’s the long-term effect for the people.”

Nonetheless, the tide is looking to change in Nepal. Although the exact structure of the shakedown has yet to materialize, the social, economic, and political stages are being set in the national context and the calls for change are being increasingly echoed by the international community — not just from regional powerbrokers like India, the European Union, and (in a rather more dysfunctional way) the U.S., but also from traditional allies such as China. One way or another, the whole of the current royal regime appears headed for a dramatic shift, either of compromise or outright downfall.

The current maxim on the part of the political parties’ leadership is that such a transformation must take place before the summertime monsoons, while the growing tones of the “Spring of 2006” reminds many of the 1990 People’s Movement, which ushered in Nepal’s decade of democracy. And toward such a shift, some sections of Nepal’s intelligentsia and journalism circles are already preparing, and quietly wondering: How will we reverse the royal edicts? How will we give the airwaves back to the people, permanently? How will we convert the state broadcasters into public broadcasters? How will we restore Nepal to the media position it attained a decade ago — as a beacon in the mountains, where the air is clear and free? These, of course, are the questions of a democracy.   

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