Nepal's first company to get permission to uplink via satellite was to begin transmission on Nepali New Year, 14 April. Space Time Network had announced transmission schedules, even taped interviews to fill programming slots. Suddenly, two days before broadcasts were to begin, the Ministry of Information and Communication (MOIC) told Space Time's Channel Nepal it couldn't uplink because of "incomplete tests of equipment". More than a month later, Space Time's chairman and managing director Jamim Shah is still waiting for permission, and is running out of patience.
"I'm losing Rs 100,000 everyday paying for renting the transponders," Shah told us. He has written 18 letters to the ministry asking for reasons for the delay. The standard reply has been that the files are now gathering dust on the table of minister Shiva Raj Joshi. "If they don't give us permission soon, we'll uplink programmes from outside the country," Shah said curtly.
We asked Shree Ram Poudel secretary at the ministry to comment, and he answered in bureaucratese: "We're looking into the process. I don't want to expand on that." However, Poudel had earlier informed the Parliament's Development Committee that his ministry saw no reason to stop transmission of Channel Nepal as the network's documents were in order. A member of the committee, Raghuji Panta of the main opposition UML also saw no problems. "We've reviewed the case. Everything, all the documents, tax papers are in order. The company has paid Rs 90 million in taxes so far. There's no valid reason to stop transmission," he said. Despite the committee's directive to the MOIC to allow satellite broadcasts immediately after completing equipment tests, the green light from government has yet to come.
So, what is holding things up? The delay has strengthened reports that the government is under pressure from India which has expressed security concerns about Space Time. Jamim Shah himself figured on a list of Nepalis that Indian intelligence charged of being on the payroll of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in a report leaked to an Indian magazine. India is said to have leaned on the government during the visits here two months ago of former Indian ambassador to Nepal, KV Rajan, and of the veteran Indian actor, Amitabh Bachhan. Sources said even the Indian prime minister's powerful security adviser, Brajesh Mishra, casually questioned several government officials on the decision to allow Jamim Shah to go on air.
"The technical incompatibility of Channel Nepal's satellite equipment is just an excuse to keep the network lingering so they'll lose heart and pull out," confirmed one ministry insider. "The real story is Indian displeasure." But Shah is determined not to give up without a fight, he says he has been arbitrarily singled out. "Why don't they worry about technical tests of say all the 13 V-SAT operators, after all they are also using satellite. If they cancel my permission, I will go to court. I've invested so much already," he warned.
Asked if he is fronting for Pakistan, or if his network would promote anti-Indian sentiments, Jamim Shah denies the accusation. "They've been telling me that for the last eight years. Look, this is not about India, China or Pakistan. It's not about Jamim Shah or Space Time. This is about 24 million Nepalis. This is Nepal's voice and it can't be stopped," he says. Channel Nepal's satellite footprint would extend from the Gulf, across South Asia to Thailand and Malaysia. It would therefore be able to reach Nepali-speakers outside Nepal, and Nepali migrant workers in the Gulf and southeast Asia. Those who know Jamim Shah well say that whatever dealings he may have had in the past with his Dubai friends, he is now trying to make money from his satellite venture, and that is all he is interested in. But his bravado and blunt talk does not endear him to the Indians.
Nepali television viewers today watch mainly Indian channels through their dish antennae or through cable networks like Space Time. Shah's cable network has more than 50,000 households connected in Kathmandu alone, and a few thousand more in other urban centres. And for someone who is accused by the Indians of being a Pakistani spy, Shah's network offers mainly Indian movie, music and news channels. It was only during the Hrithik Roshan riots that Space Time suspended Indian programming for a week. If he gets his satellite license, Channel Nepal would be beamed to 52 countries in Asia.
Ever since Nepal became the first country in South Asia to grant licenses to independent radio in 1997-satellite up-linking permission was given in 1993-there has been no looking back. "We can only move forward," says Narhari Acharya former NC minister and chairman of the task force that drafted the National Communications Policy 1992 that made the licensing possible. "Of course a government always has to look after the nation's interest but in this case I think it's the vagueness in policy that has allowed space for such contentions." Acharya feels that ten years later, it is time to review the policy.
Despite the early pioneering work with private FM and cable, the development of electronic media in Nepal has been stagnant compared to the print media which has gained professionalism and stature in the 1990s. An uneasy truce exists between the government, the licensing and monitoring authority, and independent broadcasters, whose technical and professional know-how still needs improvement. The MOIC is entrusted with implementing the law, but it has been unpredictable and arbitrary about the terms and conditions it imposes on licensees, which have changed with the whims of the sitting minister.
So, whether or not Space Time will get the green signal is for the politicians to decide, and for the give-and-take that takes place at that level. "When matters take a political turn, you can't deduce by logic," says the MOIC insider. With parliamentary committees now scanning through MOIC decisions, he foresees the battle erupting into another political hot potato. What started off as differences between two individuals, now has the eyes of all: parliamentary bodies and the media and it is spiced up with innuendos of Indian high-handedness.
Space Time Network initially received a license to operate cable network and to transmit via satellite in 1993 when Bijaya Gachhedar, was minister in the first elected government of the Nepali Congress. Even licensing at that time was hush-hush: there was no bidding. The government quietly licensed Shah's company and another one by the name of South Asia Broadcasting to uplink via satellite. South Asia Broadcasting still exists in the ministry files, even though it has not done as much preparation as Channel Nepal to actually begin broadcasting.
Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta, another NC Communications minister, revoked Space Time\'s licence in January on grounds that the network had not paid its dues. Shah announced he was going to court but was later about to get his licence re-issued by another NC Communications minister, Shiva Raj Joshi who joined cabinet in February. Again there was no bidding. Gupta who had been shifted to the Agriculture and Cooperatives ministry in the February reshuffle resigned to protest Joshi's decision.
Many MOIC insiders suspect the delay in allowing Space Time to go ahead with its transmission reflects a business dispute within the Koirala inner circle, between those who are piggybacking on the Indians and those who are not. Some are even said to have business interests in Shah's Channel Nepal.
And for this purpose, delaying Space Time using a security bogey is a good ploy, says one government source. The government may have yet another reason to delay private satellite broadcasting: the state-owned Nepal TV is also planning to begin broadcasts via satellite by June. Interestingly, no one has heard of technical tests of NTV's equipment similar to the ones demanded of Space Time, nor questions about financial viability.