It was a unique form of protest. Among the marigolds, vermilion and incense sticks that devotees presented in a bamboo tray to Pashupatinath on Monday was a small FM radio set.
More than 50 members of various Nepali non-government radio stations that have been restricted to broadcasting only music since February First decided to appeal to Nepal's patron deity for help. "Harahara Mahadeb," they chanted in prayer, "give our rulers some wisdom."
Nepal's remarkable strides in community radio has been praised as a model the world over. Since Radio Sagarmatha first went on air in 1997 in Kathmandu Valley, 45 other FM stations have gone on air. Listenership had surpassed that of state-owned Radio Nepal. Commercial and non-profit FMs were equally popular and complemented each other to give Nepal's pluralism and diversity a voice.
All this came to a crashing halt on 4 February with the government circular prohibiting FM stations from broadcasting news and limiting them to 'pure entertainment'. The military and local administrations have been increasingly heavy handed with station management, issuing notices and demanding clarification if stations deviate even slightly from the directive.
The result is hundreds of journalists are out of jobs, the public has lost a vital and credible source of information, listenership of clandestine rebel broadcasts have gone up and stations that never broadcast Hindi music have turned to Bollywood to fill airtime. As a result, advertising revenues have tumbled and investors are worried.
For the last four months, broadcasters tried quiet diplomacy with informal one-on-ones with members of the cabinet, top army brass and the Minister for Information and Communication. They tried to convince them that, contrary to the minister's belief, FM stations worldwide do carry news, that local FM stations can be partners in the country's development and if the government censored independent news, information hungry Nepalis would just tune to Maoist frequencies. Nothing swayed them.
"When we met the Minister of Information Tanka Dhakal on 7 April, he assured us that the government would soon allow FM stations to broadcast non-political news," says Raghu Mainali, coordinator of Save Independent-Radio Movement. "No announcement ever came."
Now, the Community Radio Broadcasters' Association, the Broadcasting Association of Nepal (an organisation of commercial broadcasters) and Kathmandu Valley FM Broadcasters Forum have come together to launch the radio campaign.
"Desperate times call for creative measures," says Ghamaraj Luintel of Kathmandu Valley FM Broadcasters' Forum. Indeed, the week-long protests include half-a-minute of simultaneous conch blowing by all stations, beseeching Pashupatinath, reciting the clause from the constitution on freedom of expression and mailing the government a copy of the constitution with a broken radio . Simultaneous silence on all stations for two minutes and lighting candles at the Maitighar Mandala are also scheduled.
The three broadcasting associations and the radio stations they represent know this is a last-ditch attempt to revive radio in Nepal. "Station managers don't just have to worry about censorship, they also have to deal with salaries of employees and paying license renewal fees due on 15 July," says Broadcasting Association of Nepal's Bishnu Hari Dhakal. The license fees will double if not cleared within six months and expire with no possibility of renewal if not paid within a year. Nepali radio is in big trouble.
Nepal's rural FM stations are not under attack just from the state. On the night of 19 May, 35 armed Maoists raided Ghodagodi FM in Attari in Kailali and looted most of the station's studio equipment. Among the station's listenership were kamaiyas and other underprivileged groups in Kailali, Kanchanpur and Bardiya and its programs tackled social reform issues. "They often asked us to send our technicians to repair their transmitters or other equipment," says station manager Biswo Pachhaldangia. He had refused. "Our technicians can operate mixers and tape decks but cannot repair them." The rebels reportedly operate nine clandestine mobile FM transmitters in the country and accused Ghodaghodi of operating with American money. It is actually supported by a Danish government grant.
The Ministry of Information and Communication sent a 'secret' and 'urgent' letter to Communication Corner, a radio content provider on 27 May. 'Since we have received in writing that the (Communication) Corner is being run illegally, we are, as per orders, requesting you to shut down,' the cryptic note read. Communication Corner is a legally registered, commercially run, radio production syndicate exchanging programs between 14 partner stations all over the country since 1998. On 1 February, armed soldiers entered the studio and stopped dissemination of radio and shut off its V-Sat system.
Even so, the company was distributing Shuba Bachan, a program promoting people's physical and emotional well-being. Managing Director Gopal Guragain told us, "We have no idea why they did this." On 30 June, Guragain moved the Supreme Court to issue a stay order and filed a case against the Ministry of Information and Communication, Ministry of Defence and Lalitpur District Administrator's Office which were cc-ed the letter. The court has asked the three authorities to present their case today.