Nepali Times Asian Paints
Here And There
The crackdown and after


In this connected, globalised world, everything is shared, trafficked, exposed. Borders are meaningless when almost all communication is carried by fibre optics or radio waves. Not even armed soldiers can stop an FM signal. No customs officer can search a VSAT beam or cut off a satellite television signal. You can try to block the Internet but you won't succeed. The challenge before nation states is to use this force to strengthen sovereignty and national prosperity. Isolation is not an option.

Perhaps the greatest shared commodity in this wireless world is information. So on 1 February 2005, when the authorities in Nepal cut telephone lines, switched off mobiles and blocked Internet servers, they may have thought they were lowering a contemporary version of Churchill's Iron Curtain. But they were not.

Those of us on the far side of the world leapt to our keyboards and found the cracks in the new Berlin Wall. Information leaked out-at first a trickle but later in great torrents on web logs and international media. Journalists from the regional and global press filled in the blanks within days. Satellite telephone calls and emails from secure uplink points provided reassurances and eventually, a full picture emerged.

It was only within the country that information was prevented from flowing, as was the intention. This may have been a temporary setback to the Maoist rebels but, if so, only at the most tactical level.

Stolen two-way radios crackled in jungle glades and along terraced hillsides, clandestine and illegal FM transmitters spread the words of the leadership, unfettered by the military and civil administration crackdown in Kathmandu and other places. It was largely law-abiding Nepalis who felt the effects of the first week.

Thankfully, the telephones now ring in the PCOs and the Internet once again hums in cybercafes from Khakarbhitta to Kailali. Some day, the mobiles may be switched back on, now that the innocent have been fingerprinted.

But what of the other great casualty of the emergency declaration, Nepal's lively and independent media? The picture is not good and the signs don't bode well, however, many UN human rights monitors will make their way here in the coming months. For let's be honest, who among us could realistically fault the press or the broadcasters for any of the woes of the past 14 years? On the contrary, the media in Nepal is a blazing success story at every level: journalistic, economic and otherwise.

Newspapers have flourished along with a burgeoning private sector, in stark contrast to the feudal days before the 1990 democratic changes where only a few families dominated the business life of the nation and state media produced turgid sycophancy in place of real information. Kantipur will soon celebrate its 13th birthday, this paper is five years old and countless other journals have helped create a growing market of literate, informed readers.

Satellite television news had just begun to take off in Nepal. Started in part as a counterweight to an ever-growing plethora of Indian television, the likes of Kantipur Television, Space Time and Image Channel were acquiring talent and technology with the joint aim of earning a profit and informing the public.

Most strikingly, the FM radio dial was growing ever more crowded. Community stations in the tiniest of towns and in the capital linked people of all castes and ethnic groups. They kept politicians and traders honest. They provided information on health, education and, yes, the insurgency. In Kathmandu, commercial radio helped Nepali rock, folk and classical music flourish and pushed Bollywood and western pop into niches of limited popularity.

In short, despite the undeniable excesses of the political parties and the horror of civil insurgency, Nepal had at least one thing to be proud of. The independent media was world class and getting better and more confident with time. It was also responsible and by no means interested in encouraging totalitarianism or violence of any sort.

So I arrive in Kathmandu at the dawn of a new year on the Nepali calendar and what do I find? A press and media under siege. Voices for peace, reconciliation and development are silenced or forced into cat-and-mouse games with capricious authority. Journalists live in fear or moulder in prison. FM radio plays only music, largely from across the border. Private tv presents a mirror of Nepal television as station owners look nervously to the huge investments they've made in technology and licenses. No boats are rocked there. No useful information either.

In the tarai and midhills, the only voice that speaks without government censorship comes clandestinely and illegally over an FM band where informative, independent thought has been banished. The Maoists are free to speak their minds. No one else is.
Daniel Lak recently visited Nepal to assess press freedom for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)