Big things have small beginnings. When a group of Nepali media activists and journalists finally got the license to launch the country's (and the region's) first community radio station in 1996, the shabby one-room studio in Kathmandu didn't look like much.
But Radio Sagarmatha did not just launch itself, it unleashed a wave of public broadcasting in Nepal bringing an unprecedented deregulation in the FM spectrum. Within a decade there were more than 50 FM stations across the country. And contrary to the government's worst fears, the stations didn't spread anarchy and chaos. In fact, radio became a vital source of information and expanded the public space for debate and consensus. They didn't undermine our culture with Hindi pop, in fact Nepali folk and dohori got a big boost.
Nepal became recognised the world over as a pioneer in public service broadcasting in developing societies and young democracies. Nepalis could hold their heads high at international media seminars and show others how to do it. Indeed, even Sri Lanka which has a long tradition of broadcasting, sent journalists to Nepal to learn how to operate community stations.
Ten years of effort, training and investment has now been dismantled in one fell swoop by the government's ban on news and current affairs on FM for security reasons. Even educational and farming programs can't be aired. Some FMs have closed, others are broadcasting music all day long. Thousands of journalists have been laid off. Ironically, people addicted to news on FM are turning to underground rebel broadcasts which have filled the gap. Shortwave radios that were extinct are suddenly in great demand and even second-hand ones are selling at a premium as people switch to the BBC Nepali Service which has increased its program duration to fill demand (see interview).
"It's a very sad situation. Independent radio broadcasters were serving the nation so well and better than any form of media. How can they be accused of boosting the morale of Maoists and undermining the state?" says Bharat Koirala, the architect of Nepal's public broadcasting success story. It was largely in recognition for his tireless lobbying for Radio Sagarmatha that Koirala was conferred the Magsaysay Award for media in 2002.
Radio Sagarmatha's license paved the way for Nepal's FM boom: community radios, public broadcasters and commercial stations. The FM wave unleashed a music revolution in Pokhara and spurred the growth of folk music. But for the most part, radio fulfilled the Nepali thirst for freedom. Rural stations like Radio Madanpokhara in Palpa started with a studio in a cowshed. Radio Swargadwari in Dang used to broadcast vital information for farmers and traders.
A new design of dokos with a small wicker pocket where women gathering fodder could put their radios became the vogue across Nepal. In Jumla, shepherds on pastures listened to studio discussions on Radio Karnali and felt empowered. Bus drivers along the highways in Chitwan got important information live on the status of the roads through their radios. Maithili and Bhojpuri broadcasts from Nepal became instant hits across the border in India. This was the nation talking to itself through a network of decentralised, localised and vibrant radio stations.
After February First, there has been a vast silence. The new information minister shocked listeners when he told BBC last month that FM stations all over the world only broadcast music, not news. "It was an absurd statement and blatantly false," says Raghu Mainali president of the Community Broadcasters' Association. In the absence of clear instructions on what's ok and what's not, most broadcasters are playing it safe. "We don't even know if it all right to broadcast news about lost and abducted children, their health or about immunisation campaigns," says Mainali.
Radio journalists say this is the time radio can play an effective role in supporting the government's development efforts. With the ban on news, there is already a backlash. In the absence of news there are wild rumours and even news of Maoist atrocities and brutality are not getting to the public. With news allowed only on the credibility-challenged state radio, even when the government tells the truth people take it with a pinch of salt.
Bharat Koirala says if the government is so concerned, it can always give FM stations guidelines like it has for the print media. "If there are certain norms radios should observe, why not tell them this is how far they can go and let them resume news and discussions immediately."
Most FM investors from outside Kathmandu have been so frightened about losing their licenses that they haven't challenged the ban. "There is no organised lobbying by FM groups and associations to get news reinstated," says Gopal Guragain from Communications Corner which provided radio content to a network of stations all over the country via satellite.
"Why are FM radios being targetted? All we are asking for are clear instructions about the news format," says Bharat Sakya, president of Kathmandu Valley Broadcasters' Forum. Most of the radio stations are on the verge of collapse as advertisers pull out sponsorship for popular news programs.
"The major setback is the revenue loss and the people who have lost their jobs," says Prabhat Rimal, Kantipur FM, "We are trying our best to redeploy radio staff into our newspaper and television units." Outside Kathmandu, the situation is much worse. Synergy FM of Chitwan was forced to lay off seven journalists in one day right after the royal proclamation was made.
Nepali Service on 25, 31 and 41 metre bands shortwave at:
World Service English on 103 FM