Tuning into the radio in Nepal

Radio Kapilvastu has been running programs on safety during Covid-19.

As Nepal experienced the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic just as the rest of the world did, the value of local broadcasters was amplified like never before. Large portions of rural and semi-urban Nepal depend upon local broadcasters for reliable information, a premium product during the pandemic.

The pandemic has also affected the local radios in an existential crisis, with sources of incomes drying up as sponsors themselves experienced a business crisis. The situation was worsened with many community volunteers and staff falling sick. These coupled with lack of adequate connectivity and electricity supply added to the miseries of operation. The work-from-home solution did not work for the local radio stations, especially in technologically challenged areas.

Disregarding the difficulties and withstanding a slow start, community radios continued to broadcast lifesaving information to the most vulnerable.

Broadcasting media, especially community radio is the most accessible form of mass media in Nepal. Community radios operating in locations poorly served by the government and commercial broadcasters are the most important link between the marginalised persons and the public service providers, including government offices, especially in times of a disaster.

Out of the approximately 800 FM radio stations in Nepal, close to half operate as not-for-profit media outlets, mostly in rural and semi-urban locations. Community radios cover almost the entire population of the country. This is not a small achievement by any yardstick, especially when contrasted with Nepal’s fledgling governance and human rights situation.

The pandemic also brought to the fore the gaps in the Nepali media ecosystem and the community radio sector.

Next year, the Nepali broadcasting sector will be marking an important milestone. It will be 25 years since the first non-governmental broadcaster Radio Sagarmatha was founded in 1997. By the virtue of being the first non-governmental broadcaster in all of South Asia, Radio Sagarmatha has contributed significantly to Nepal’s fame in the world of broadcasting media.

It is, however, ironic that despite its elevated profile in the country and to some extent internationally, the community radio sector has been left to its own devices. In the lack of any legal recognition by way of a community radio policy and the absence of relevant laws and regulations, the sector is beset with maladies and malpractices. Community radios all over South Asia suffer either a ‘no-policy’ or ‘poor-policy’ situation, and Nepal happens to fall under the latter category.

As the sector gradually comes to term with the pandemic, it is time that renewed attention is given to the call for ‘community radio friendly’ policies. In most of Nepal’s neighborhood, community radios are controlled by applying unreasonable restrictions in terms of transmission power, content, advertisement space and so on, thereby tempting sections of the sector to think that no-policy is better than poor-policy.

However, appropriate policies and regulations can help resolve some of the main problems that prevent the sector from operating at its full capacity and potential, especially at times of emergencies. Distance broadcasting, decentralised production and provisions for remote broadcasting are topics to be pursued in this regard. It’s high time to bring in the idea of emergency broadcasting with a clear strategy and timeline. This has policy as well as resource implications, that have to be sorted out.

Connection between policy and practice is often direct and deep. As with every disaster, the consequences of this pandemic too have been more devastating for those that were already vulnerable in the communities. Reviewing and refining of strategies and practices of the stations are required to correctly address these situations.

The capacity of community radios to be inclusive is strongly linked to the way NGOs and cooperatives— which happen to be operating the greatest number of community radios in Nepal— are structured. Any discussion about enhancing access to community broadcasting needs to be coupled with revising the way non-governmental organisations are set up.

The need for strengthening further effective grassroots communications mechanisms so that voices hitherto unheard can be to be heard, has been even more amplified by the dreadful pandemic. Community radios are often the only way to bring perspectives of those living in poverty into the decision-making processes. Losing community stations to a disaster will mean losing the most critical communication link with a vulnerable population. The support received from national and international actors, has thankfully prevented that from happening, so far.

Community radios must continue doing what they are meant to do, which is to provide correct, appropriate and relevant information to the communities in dialects and languages that are best understood locally. At the same time and collectively as a sector, the rest of the actors in the media ecosystem need to step up advocacy for policy reform.

The rise of radicalism— in the forms of populist nationalism, religion or economic development— is causing a shrinking of space for civil society actors. They are either chased or co-opted. The well-known activist and author Arundhati Roy once wrote that "there's really no such thing as the 'voiceless'. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”. It is clear that efforts from various quarters are still afoot towards this end. Community radios can and must try to change the status quo.

Suman Basnet is the Regional Director of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcaster, AMARC (Asia-Pacific).