|RED RADIO: Aruna Rayamajhi of Radio Paschimanchal in the studio.|
Aruna Rayamajhi likes to be known as a "revolutionary journalist" During the conflict she was a radio reporter for the Maoists' clandestine Radio Ganatantra.
"My comrades carried guns, I carried a broadcast antenna in my hand and a transmitter in my backpack and went to scenes of battle to cover the news," recalls Rayamajhi.
Today, Rayamajhi is no more underground. She is a radio news reader for Radio Paschimanchal 99.4FM in Tansen and her voice can be heard all over Palpa and eight surrounding districts.
Radio Paschimanchal was set up in 2003 by a group of pro-Nepali Congress businessmen and headed by the NC's district president. The station never really got back to normal after it was damaged during a firefight here in February 2005 (see: 'Radioactivity in Palpa', #310). The station, which has been under pressure to repay its bank loans, was bought by the Maoists on the 11th anniversary of their 'revolution' in February.
Loyal 99.4 listeners noticed a dramatic change. The news coverage became focused on Maoist events and brought a heavy dose of Maoist propaganda everyday. The news even used the derogatory word "mandale" to describe anyone critical of the Maoists, and regularly referred to the king as "Gyane".
Early morning, when the other three FM stations in Palpa are broadcasting religious chants, 99.4 belts out revolutionary songs like the hit song, 'Avalanches unite to make glaciers. the people unite into a flashflood'.
|Station that was recently bought by the Maoists.|
Listeners' reactions are mixed. Under its original owners, the station was perceived to have a pro-Congress stance and many took it as a given that change in ownership would mean a change in slant.
Initially, people in Tansen listened to the new 99.4 out of curiosity, but now the townsfolk are tuning out. "It's clear that the station is just a mouthpiece for the Maoists," says Saroj Shakya, who runs a shop in the market and used to be an avid Radio Paschimanchal listener.
The station was itself caught in the crossfire during the Maoist attack on Tansen in February 2005. The transmitter, studios, and offices were riddled with bullets as an army unit on the roof of the building exchanged fire with Maoists atop nearby houses. The station owners received compensation from the government, which they divided among themselves, and then used the proceeds from the sale of the station to pay back the banks.
Locals blame the Congress as much as the Maoists. "All this wouldn't have happened if the NC workers had been more committed to democracy and press freedom," said one. The station was finally sold for Rs 4.5 million to a consortium of Butwal businessmen known to be sympathetic to the Maoists. An employee says the radio is now run directly by the party, which has purged most of the journalists associated with it earlier.
"This is the first radio station that is being used to promote the party's ideology," admits station in-charge, Balak Ram Buda without any hint of irony. Buda wants to upgrade the station's 400W transmitter to 1,000W to extend its reach and adds that the station is careful not to be too propagandistic.
But station manager Satis Chapagain openly admits that "this radio is being run more as a party organ than a professional station." Chapagain is one of the few journalists who have been retained from the previous avatar of the station. "We have been told by the new owners that our mission is to argue for the republican cause," he says. Indeed, 99.4FM launched transmission under its new owners with a live broadcast of Pushpa Kamal Dahal's public speech in Kathmandu in February.