The history of radio broadcasting in Nepal is closely linked with the struggle for democracy. The present state-owned Radio Nepal started life as Democracy Nepal Radio when it was established in November 1950 with the sole aim of attaining democracy. Its broadcasts were a powerful symbol of the freedom of the press and the right to free expression in the fight for democracy against the century-old Rana oligarchy.
History took a U-turn last week when the Ministry of Information and Communication (MOIC), headed by a journalist-turned-politician who had once struck a blow for a free press, issued a directive banning independent news and current affairs programmes on FM radio, because, as a Ministry official put it, it thought it was contributing to "undermining nationalism".
The MOIC edict now allows FM stations only to broadcast information obtained through 'official' sources and transmit material obtained from state broadcasters. The directive also limits the number of members on FM station boards to three at most, one of whom should be from the Ministry. Board meetings without the presence of the MOIC representative is not allowed. Other clauses mandate that broadcast material produced by individual FM stations be submitted to the Ministry for permission seven days before the planned broadcast. It goes without saying that the Ministry reserves the right to stop it from going on air.
After receiving the MOIC circular, some of the FM stations terminated their current affairs programmes, while others defied the ban and continued their regular news items this week. The government has so far not taken any action against those who've ignored its directive and officials are tight-lipped about the whole affair. But there are signs that officialdom will attempt to use government media to discourage FM stations from running news programmes.
"This is not censorship. The government's concern is only about making the media more accountable. Besides, nowhere in the world does FM radio broadcast news collected through their own sources," says Sri Ram Poudel, Secretary of the MOIC, parroting the official explanation.
Independent media analysts, unsurprisingly, do not buy the government's argument. The international media community is also critical of the move. The Paris-based Repporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders-RSF) was the first international institution to appeal the government to "go back" on its decision to "limit press freedom by depriving the Nepali population of independent news".
In an interaction programme last week in Kathmandu that included mediapersons, human rights activists and legal practitioners, the government came under fire for a move reminiscent of mechanisms used by the Panchayat administration to gag the press. Member of the National Human Rights Commission Kapil Shrestha said that the decision was "authoritative nostalgia." "The government is conducting a systematic attack on the press. This move is part of an attempt to muzzle civil society as a whole," human rights activist Krishna Pahadi said.
Although the 2 January MOIC decision-conveyed to the country's 11 FM stations in a back-dated letter on 16 January-came as a sudden move, a ranking official at the Ministry said, on condition of anonymity, that the government had been "feeling pinched" by the coverage these stations were giving to various national issues and that Minister of Information and Communication Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta had been contemplating the crackdown for some time. It is learnt that Gupta himself took the initiative to push the ban through in the wake of the 26-27 December riots, during which some FM stations were said to have heightened tensions by broadcasting jingoistic reports about the comments allegedly made by an Indian actor about Nepal.
Most analysts see Gupta's righteous indignation as an attempt to gloss over his own faux pas of having publicly demanded an apology from the actor and announcing a ban on his films till such time as the "apology" was made. This is not the first time Gupta has made noises about reining the independent media. In August 2000, Gupta attempted to bring changes to a regulation governing print media, but was forced to withdraw after the parliamentary committee rejected the proposal. The proposed amendment, which would have private newspapers renew their registration annually, came in for sharp criticism from almost everyone.
The controversial FM news ban was possible because the minister found a loophole in the broadcasting licence given to stations. The licence disallows "news" broadcasts, and FM stations had been circumventing the clause by calling their information broadcasts anything but news. And until last week, the authorities hadn't done anything about it. Some argue that the legality of the clause against news is itself questionable as it contradicts the Broadcast Act and the Broadcast Regulation, which demand that news be produced "fairly and impartially", but does not specifically ban news. The 2 January directive lists subjects related to community development as areas the radios could focus their broadcasts on, but leaves out politics and civil rights. "It is an undemocratic and illegal move," says Sindhu Nath Pyakurel, newly elected president of the Nepal Bar Association.
Some independent media analysts interpret the decision as a new phase in government control of the media, which they say started in far western Nepal, where taking in or distributing pro-Maoist newspapers or even those with news on the Maoist movement is not allowed by police decree. Gupta has been critical about the coverage private media have given the Maoist insurgency and has repeatedly suggested some kind of media control, saying that widespread coverage incites insurgency.
The government decision is likely to draw criticism in the upcoming parliamentary session too. The parliament's Development Committee summoned government officials on 23 January to explain the rationale behind the decision. Unconvinced by the official explanation, the Committee has directed the government to reverse the MOIC decision. Raghuji Pant, a former journalist and member of the Committee, told us that the Committee will "take action" against government if the government does not comply immediately.
"I suspect a gap between the government's intention and the language it has used in the directive," says a hopeful Gopal Guragain of Communication Corner, an independent producer of current affairs radio magazines for FM radio stations outside the Valley. "But if the government really means what it says, that will disturb the whole democratisation process. Rural communities with access to FM stations rely on them for information."
Nepal became the first country in South Asia to allow community radio stations in 1997 when Radio Sagarmatha went on air in Kathmandu. It also adopted a liberal policy regarding private broadcasters. The establishment of FM revolutionised radio production norms and the listening habits of the Nepali population. There are presently six FM stations in the Kathmandu Valley and another five operational outside the Valley. Two others, Pokhara Multipurpose Co-operatives and Annapurna FM were granted licences as recently as 9 January this year. Meanwhile, over 25 applications are pending with the MOIC.
Locally managed radio stations offered an alternative medium to rural communities, which have limited access to print media and are largely neglected by the state-run Radio Nepal, whose role as a public service national broadcasting apparatus was altered in 1991. Following a government provision dictating that the broadcaster earn its running costs from advertising, its focus changed from a public broadcaster to one that is more entertainment based.
"The FM radios have helped empower the people, they have provided an alternative means of information and forum for public debates on a range of issues," said Vinaya Kasajoo, a promoter of community-based mass communication. "The undemocratic move of the government against the FM radios shows that the government is scared of the efficacy of private radio in informing people in ways crucial to uplift their decision-making abilities about national issues."