Last week, the Ministry of Information and Communications (MOIC) went through a pile of pending FM radio applications and pulled out the one submitted by the Kantipur group, and granted it permission to set up the country\'s most powerful FM transmitter.
Kantipur was chosen out of 21 applications with the ministry for FM stations all over the country. The country\'s premier private media house (it publishes The Kathmandu Post and Kantipur, among others) is planning a mammoth 10-kilowatt transmitter at Bhedetar (the first high ridge on the Dharan-Dhankuta road), which will be ten times more powerful than the FM transmitter in Kathmandu run by the siate-owned Radio Nepal.
With that kind of power, the Bhedetar transmitter will bring the Nepali-speaking areas of India-Sikkim and northern West Bengal, Bihar, and even pans of Uttar Pradesh within range. In Nepal itself, the signals will reach a broad swathe of the tarai and hills from Ilam right up to Birgunj.
By awarding the licence to Kantipur, the ministry overrode applications for smaller community FM stations from nongovernment organisations, local communities and village development committees. The pending applications are from Pokhara (8), Birgunj (1), Biratnagar (4), Kathmandu (5), and others from Dang, Bardia, Sankuwasabha and Kanchanpur. According to sources at the Ministry of Information and Communication, Minister Java Prakash Prasad Gupta ordered that all pending applications be brought up for scrutiny and approved just the one for licensing.
Minister Gupta, however, justifies his decision saying that the Kantipur licence was granted in accordance with the \'FM master plan\'. "There are 11-12 other stations which will be licensed after they make the necessary papers available."
The MOIC decision seems to copy similar deregulation of the FM band in India, but there the annual fees tor metros like Bombay and Delhi run in the range of IRs 50-100 million (NRs 80-160 million). The government makes money, the private companies cash in on the huge advertising market, and everyone is happy.
The high fees in India is what has motivated Times FM, a wing of the Times of India group of newspapers, to want to set up a powerful FM transmitter in the mountains of Nepal overlooking the north Indian plains. Its earlier proposal which MOIC says did not exist-was supposedly rejected by Marxist-
Leninist minister Radha Krishna Mainali, saying it was against the national interest.
Newspapers have reported that Times FM is going to piggyback on Kantiput. Managing Director of Kantipur Publications, Kailash Sirohiya, however, expressed surprise when asked about the Times of India connection. "I came to know about it only through different news sources," he said. "It is basically Kantipur FM and it will be only Kantipur FM."
There is also a growing feeling that the MOIC\'s decision is arbitrary, non-transparent and does not follow the National Communication Policy, which stipulates support for community broadcasting.
"We don\'t care which organisation was licensed and which was not but what we all have to question is the process through which the ministry has issued licences," says Raghu Mainali, who coordinates the Community Radio Support Centre at the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ) that runs Kathmandu\'s Radio Sagarmatha.
He adds: "Because the radio frequency spectrum is a national resource, agencies like the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament should look into the licensing process to see if it has been fair and according to established rules. Licence fees are a flat Rs 500,000 annually-whether it be a 10-kilowatt or a 1-kilowatt station, and neither is there any distinction made between commercial stations and community-run ones. Asks Mainali: "Is it logical to charge a station broadcasting with 10 times more power the same licence fee?"
In most countries, radio frequencies are regarded as public property and commercial broadcasting licences are usually auctioned to the highest bidder. But in the case of the MOIC, most licences have so far been granted by ministers on their way out. This has led many to suspect that Gupta\'s hurry this time too may have been motivated by the unstable politics of the past two weeks.
Still others, like Bharat Koirala (see Viewpoint, alongside) who see decentralised community radio as a key component for development communication, question the licensing of industrial-scale broadcasting to private entities. In fact, the National Communication Policy lays down the guiding principles of radio licensing in favour of small local stations.
The Kantipur licence has also generated extra interest since it is allowed news broadcasts. Private and community stations so far have been restricted from airing news, but they have all found ingenious ways of circumventing this by calling news and current affairs something safe, like "Diary", "Headlines" or "Today\'s Talk".
Sources at the MOIC say that although Kantipur is allowed to broadcast "news", it comes with the proviso that only information gathered from government sources or from government-owned organisations is to be regarded as "news". Kantipur\'s Sirohiya, while not explicit about this stipulation, asked, "How can news originate only from official sources? I believe the licence requires us to function as stipulated by the broadcasting law."
This is the first FM licence granted by a Nepali Congress government after being elected to power in May 1999. All previous 12 permissions were given between May 1997 and May 1999 by minority or coalition governments. The first batch of commercial FM stations, including Kantipur and Image FM, were licensed in 1997 after a no-confidence motion to oust Surya Bahadur Thapa, the then prime minister, had been registered. (Minister Gupta was in charge of the same ministry in that government.) At that time, out of a ministry "merit" shortlist of four applications for licensing (which consisted of Kantipur, Music Nepal, Hits FM, Image Channel) only Kantipur and Image Channel were licensed.
Two years ago, the state-owned Radio Nepal wanted to set up a similar high-power FM station in the western hill town of Dadeldhura. But the plan was replaced by another one to set up a string of FM stations in urban areas across Nepal run along the lines as FM 100 in Kathmandu. That plan now stands scrapped after a ministry study recommended that individual stations were more desirable than a mega-network. And so on