It was around 0300 on the morning of Saturday 2 June that Niranjan Neupane, a financial consultant in Kathmandu, was woken up by the phone. He couldn't believe what he heard, and remembers praying it was not true. Too shocked to go back to sleep and unable to confirm what he had heard, he turned to the Internet. And there on the www.nepalnews.com site was an announcement of "a recent development". The link took him to the website of this paper, which had an account of what had happened at the palace five hours earlier.
Bhola Rana, a former UPI correspondent and now a reporter for nepalnews.com, first filed a report on his news portal at 2300 Friday that the queen's sister, Shanti Singh was dead. His editors pushed that story out with an obituary. But when Rana and his editors started checking rumours that she had been shot, they also started getting reports from Chhauni that the entire royal family was dead. Nepalnews.com updated its report at 0130 saying other members of the royal family may have also died, and that details were sketchy. By 0230 the internet edition of Nepali Times hosted on www.nepalnews.com had the story and the crown prince's reported involvement.
The Nepali diaspora, if they were not called by relatives and friends in Kathmandu, first learnt about the tragedy from the internet sites. The servers of ISPs were saturated with log-ins and because the telephone network was busy, it was difficult for those hungry for correct information in Nepal and abroad to connect. Says Worldlink's Shyam Aggarwal: "We were running at 100 percent capacity all of last week. Usually we run only at 80 percent traffic." By Saturday morning, the story had spread like wildfire through the streets of Kathmandu, and citizens who woke up to hear only mournful music on state radio, television and private FM knew something was wrong. Only two of the broadsheet Nepali papers, Space Time and Samacharpatra, had the story in their Saturday morning editions. Occasional radio announcements calling members of the Royal Privy Council for an emergency meeting was the only indication that the royal family was involved in something big and tragic.
The government's information blackout didn't help matters, it sowed confusion and wild rumours which also found their way back onto the Internet through personal emails and chats. When the official story did come out, blaming "a sudden discharge of an automatic weapon" the cyber-public was convinced of a coverup. This was what fed the rumour mills and led to the public's inability to accept the truth of the original reports that the crown prince was the gunman.
Recalls Neupane: "I checked nepalnews.com and Nepali Times and read the story there. I then checked other sources, and gradually began to convince myself what I heard on telephone was true." Others we spoke to said they had received calls from Washington or Tokyo as early as 2330 on Friday night saying they were trying to confirm what they had heard from calls from Kathmandu.
The huge e-mail and chat room traffic in the days after the shootout was the surest sign that the Internet had come of age in one of the world's least-developed countries as a credible source of information-and misinformation, as the numerous websites and mass emails discussing conspiracy theories attest. If official sources were silent or not telling the truth, if the independent print media, television and radio were staying tight-lipped, parts of the public now had an alternative source of information. Most of the 25,000 Nepali email and Internet accounts were active during the week of the tragedy, which means an estimated 125,000 people within Nepal were getting their information from this medium. Nepalnews.com which used to get 15,000 hits a day, logged 80,000 on Saturday. "Most people getting information from the web were the Nepali diaspora, foreign media, tourists and researchers," says Deepesh Pradhan, director of Yomari Inc. which owns Nepal Home Page. "But it still hasn't proved its effectiveness inside Nepal," he cautions. Nepal Home Page logged 60,000 visits in the three days following the massacre. On Saturday morning, Pradhan's server nearly crashed after an overload of visitors.
Journalists at nepalnews.com worked throughout the night trying to confirm sketchy details from nervous sources, and making sure to post only what they were sure of. Says Bhola Rana: "We only moved out news after we had checked, rechecked and triple-checked the details from multiple sources." The Internet newsportal was running like a full scale wire service with the public and other media also depending on it for the latest.
During the week, access to nepalnews.com started getting difficult because more than 1,000 readers would be logged on at any given time. Mercantile's servers have 300 ports for connection, and these have been increased to 1,500 to accommodate the traffic. This means 4,500 callers can read and download news from all over the world simultaneously. Internet connections were not just blocked by people visiting Nepali websites and those of news organisations, but also by people seeking background information on royal family. One such site, www.crosswinds.net, even details the formal titles of royalty, their ages, and other biographical details.
In the last two weeks the Internet-and common people-subverted attempts at keeping facts and discussion out of public reach. But the government didn't seem to realise that. Digging up a clause in its antiquated pre-Internet press and publications act it warned individuals this week that they couldn't report on the crisis without proper accreditation.