Radio Sagarmatha FM 102.4 got its license on 18 May 1997 and went on air four days later. Since then 56 independent radio stations had been issued licenses, out of which almost 50 are broadcasting in more than 20 districts. When the last license was issued in December 2003, some 60 other stations were in various stages of the application process. The 10th year of independent radio is a time to look at factors that have facilitated and hindered independent radio journalism in Nepal.
While the freedom of the print media had been explicitly recognised by the 1990 constitution, the status of broadcasting had been left unspecified even as it guaranteed freedom of expression and information.
Thirteen years ago the National Broadcast Act put an end to state monopoly in broadcasting so FM radio stations could be owned and operated by NGOs, private companies, cooperatives and locally elected bodies.
The legal foundations of radio pluralism have been strengthened by various Supreme Court decisions since 2001.
Democratically elected governments prior to October 2002 slowed down the growth of this plural structure by making the license application process opaque and thus costly for those without reach in the party and government bureaucracy. City-based and commercial broadcasters were also favoured over village-based and non-commercial operators.
During King Gyanendra's direct rule, attempts were made to shut down FM stations. Transmission equipment was seized from some stations and others faced harassment from the state. The opening of some stations was delayed due to objections raised by the army in the name of security. Some FM stations were also ransacked by the Maoists and others faced temporary closures.
Even so, the spread of radio stations and the variety in ownership have been the two biggest assets of our independent radio sector in the past ten years. Almost a third of the districts now have a radio station of their own and that number is only going to grow.
Unable to reverse radio's plural structure even democratically-elected governments have tried to influence content by bureaucratic means and executive orders. The most notorious was the executive order issued in January 2001 by a G P Koirala-led government which tried to establish veto power through its representative in proposed boards overseeing each radio station so that programs not approved by its representative could not be aired. The directive also specified that radio stations couldn't broadcast news based on their own sources.
When this order was challenged in the Supreme Court in July 2001 it ruled that the government's attempt to monopolise the sources of news restricted citizens' right to information and their freedom of thought and expression. The court assured broadcast media of the same freedoms as those available to print. But before the radio stations could take advantage of this landmark decision, the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led government imposed a state of emergency in November 2001 and placed severe restrictions on FM radios.
State interference in FM content reached its height during King Gyanendra's direct rule with the presence of security personnel in FM stations from 1 February 2005. It continued with many executive orders, undermining of financial viability of radio stations through withdrawal of government public service advertisements and an ordinance that revised some articles of the National Broadcast Act.
The king's regime tried its best to stop news and current affairs programs in independent radios. Some stations sacked their entire news teams and others cut staff. Radio journalists were forced to take to the streets in protest while their lawyers took the fight to the Supreme Court. Its many decisions kept independent radio alive through those dismal 15 months of Nepali history.
The development of radio has also been hindered by the lack of investment by commercial and non-commercial radios in their journalists. While many stations have increased the number of their news bulletins over the years, they haven't recruited enough journalists to produce them. In one leading commercial station in Pokhara in 2005, the person who headed the news section besides managing the station also hosted several talk shows a week and handled phone-ins. Management of radio stations, commercial or otherwise, seems to want the same thing: increase the quantity and variety of programs broadcast with very little new investment on the producers.
As a result, there is a severe lack of editorial depth even in stations that have been on air for more than seven years. This lack shows up in poor news judgment and less-than-probing talk shows. While radio producers know this lack first hand, station management is so feudal that those who blow the whistle publicly are likely to face expulsion.
Management problems are severe in non-commercial stations. Radio Sagarmatha has seen more than a dozen station managers in nine years and the story in other stations is not very different. Managerial mess has resulted in good journalists seeking work elsewhere.
As we enter a new era in Nepali history, we need to re-imagine our major political institutions as well as the role of radio journalism in safeguarding democracy.
Pratoush Onta has co-edited two Nepali books related to FM radios in Nepal, Local Radio (2002) and Radio Journalism (2005).