Deactivating Radio Activities
Citing a history of media repression in the country, ARJUN BANJADE argues that in the changed political environment, there is no need for the Maoists to keep their FM radio stations or the army to operate their own frequencies.
The success of the recent mass movement, also called Jana Andolan-II (the first being the 1990 movement) should be credited largely to the general mass, and to the civil society groups. The press and their news outlets were one of the foremost and critical players representing the civil society.
Despite mass arrests of journalists, suppressive laws and a censorship that earned widespread world-condemnation (according to Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media rights group, half of the world’s censorship cases for 2005 took place in Nepal), news media continued to advocate freedom and democracy. One of the welcome steps of the restored House of Representatives (HoR) is its scrapping of the royal media ordinance. Now the press and news outlets enjoy, once again, complete freedom. But that does not mean that there aren’t issues to be resolved regarding media’s role during this transitional period and beyond.
The suppressive royal decrees, which prohibited broadcasting news via FM radio stations, have also been annulled. As a result, the country, which boasts as many as 4 dozen or so FM radio stations, is witnessing a flurry of radio activities, at least in terms of unhindered broadcasting.
But we must make a distinction between the commercial or community radio stations, government and non-governmental radio stations, and propagandist or Maoist/Army radio stations. The question is: Do the Maoist radio stations have any place in the emerging political sphere? Does the army need radio stations? Should the government be in the business of broadcasting? It is time for the Maoists to explain what they want to do with their mobile FM radio stations.
I also believe that government should privatize the state-owned broadcasting and it should cancel the FM radio operating license of the military that was granted to “counter the Maoists propaganda.”
Because now we have a ceasefire, it is important to build confidence among the political actors. And dismantling the tools of propaganda is one way to do just that. Too many lives, as many as 13,000, have been lost in the ongoing conflict. The Maoists, who have been waging a bloody war in their quest for a communist republic, must understand that history has given them a rare opportunity to join the mainstream. The king must also realize that the Nepali people are aware of a long history of control and they will no longer tolerate a culture of suppression. And the political parties and their government should act immediately to fulfill the aspiration of masses that put them in the power.
A History of Media Suppression
King Gynendra suppressed independent voices while at the same time he promoted military radio. He was merely consolidating his powers, in the pretext of countering Maoist propaganda. The dictatorship of the palace has always been a major obstacle for the development of media in Nepal. The inception of media 1951, during the first democratic political environment, was halted after King Mahendra, the present monarch’s father, sacked the elected government of Nepali Congress Party and took control of power in 1961.
The success of the public uprising of 1990 and the election under the constitution of 1991 put the Nepali Congress (NC) Party in power. The government introduced the National Communication Policy of 1992, the Broadcasting Act of 1993 and the National Broadcasting Regulations of 1995 that gave a positive direction to the media landscape in Nepal. In 1997, Nepal became the first country in South Asia to grant a license for independent radio broadcasting. As of May 2006, there were 56 licensed FM stations (20 of them are self-declared community radio stations) in the country with 51 of them on the air. After the Royal Proclamation of February 1, 2005 when the king sacked the government and took control of power, the government started intimidation of independent media in Nepal.
Although the king declared that he would provide a clean government, free from corruption, and would control the Maoists insurgency, his actions proved otherwise. He could do neither of those. Rather, by announcing the new media ordinance, the royal government suppressed the country’s independent media-- as soon as king took over the executive power, his army raided independent media houses, and took control of them.
The royal regime curtailed press freedom by banning “provocative” statements about the monarchy, imprisoning journalists, and shutting down newspapers and radio stations. The government put a ban on independent news broadcast and threatened to punish newspapers for reports that ran counter to the official line. The government also put a ban on criticism of security forces and gave itself the authority to monitor and block source of information. In March 2005, the king’s government put new directives to control media and ordered editors to publish information provided by the security forces. Tanka Dhakal, the then Minister of Information and Communication, warned that the government would take action against media that would encourage terrorism and publish or broadcast materials that were against the February 1 Royal Proclamation.
The most visible and pervasive control was over radio stations, perhaps due to their oral nature, wider public outreach and popularity. The royal regime blocked broadcasting and shut down media houses to silence the independent voices. In April 2005, the government owned Radio Nepal blocked the relay transmission of BBC World Services. In May 2005, the Ministry of Information and Communication ordered the shutting down of Communication Corner, an independent media organization, blaming it of operating without a proper license. Communication Corner was producing and distributing news and current affairs programs to 14 FM radio stations throughout the nation using satellite technology.
The King’s government did everything possible to silence the independent media because the regime’s propaganda could better work under the circumstance of media monopoly. In June 2005, the Supreme Court (SC) of Nepal asked the authorities to explain the reason behind the ban on FM radio newscasts. At the same time, the FM radio stations defied the ban on news programs. In August, 2005 the government ordered Nepal FM 91.8 to surrender its operating license for violating the ban on airing news on FM radio. However, the SC ruled in favor of the FM station – the court issued a stay order against the government that prompted many FM radio stations to begin airing news programs again.
Following the Supreme Court stay order, instead of backing off, King Gynendra announced plans to issue a media ordinance that would increase fines for publishing banned materials and renew the ban on FM radio news. Following this, government authorities seized the transmission equipment from Kantipur FM and the Ministry of Information and Communication handed over Kantipur FM 24 hours ultimatum to explain why its operating license should not be cancelled. The SC issued a stay order preventing the government canceling the license of the station. However, the Supreme Court refused to issue a stay order against the controversial media ordinance in November 2005.
The Royal government’s intimidation continued. Radio Sagarmatha went off air and four journalists were taken into custody after police raided the community radio station during the relay transmission of BBC Nepali Service live from London. It was carrying an exclusive interview with a Maoist leader Puspa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda). The station had planned to replace the live broadcast of BBC Nepali Service by music as soon as Prachanda would start speaking. Furthermore, the government blocked the Website of BBC Nepali Service that contained the interview of Prachanda. The Maoist leader was talking about the 12-point agreement reached with seven political parties regarding the establishment of absolute democracy and the election of Constitutional Assembly. In February 2006, the king’s Minister of Information and Communication Shrish Shumshere Rana said that the government was planning to establish a new media council and introduce the National Broadcasting Authority ordinance that would increase FM radio license and renewal fees. In such an environment, the MoIC granted license to the army to operate 10 FM radio stations in March 2006.
Frequency Modulation (FM) technology (invented by Howard Armstrong in 1930s) provides high-fidelity sound over broadcast radio. The first such station run in the non-governmental sector came to Nepal in 1997, with the establishment of Radio Sagarmatha. Since then, FM radio stations emerged all over Nepal, including Saipal in Bajhang to Synergy in Chitwan, Karnali FM in Jumla to Kanchanjhanga FM in Jhapa, and Madanpokhara FM in Palpa to Machhapuchere FM in Pokhara. FM radio stations have been popular among the general masses and it is believed that their signals reach 65% of the areas in Nepal.
The FM Wars
The army, which consists of nearly 90,000 personnel, understood the power and popularity of the FM radio stations. Only a month before the royal regime fell, the government granted a license to Royal Nepalese Army (now renamed Nepal Army) to run 10 FM radio stations throughout the country. The army planned to operate four FM stations with the capacity of one kilowatt and six others with the capacity of 250 watt. That decision was made at a meeting of the Central Security Committee chaired by Chief of the Army Staff Pyar Jung Thapa on June 24, 2005.
The MoIC not only granted the army a license, it exempted the license fees. All FM radio stations, commercial and community alike, have to pay a heavy license fee. The license fee for an FM station of over 500 watt is Rs. 500,000 (1 US $ = Rs.71) and for a 250 watt FM station is Rs. 100,000. The military intended FM radio stations “to counter the Maoists propaganda,” to jam or block the Maoists mobile and static FM broadcast, to raise the moral of the army personnel, and to inform the daily activities of the military and the king’s government.
The army had begun to fear that it was losing media war to the Maoists. Kamal Thapa, minister of information and communication, said private media was giving flattering publicity to the Maoists. The private media covered Maoists extensively; it carried the interviews and statements of Maoist leaders as well as provided updates on their activities, such as banda (strike) programs. The government argued that such publicity, coupled with the Maoists’ own broadcasting, was responsible for the successful strikes of the rebels.
The Maoists reportedly begun their own 3 clandestine radio stations in September 2003. By June 2004, they had 6 FM radio stations nationwide – one each for the Seti-Mahakali region, the Bheri-Karnali region, the Rukum-Rolpa region, the Gandak region, the Kathmandu Valley and the eastern region. Beginning with objectives of airing all activities of the Maoists, voices from the villages and news from international revolutionaries, the Maoists later used their FM radio stations to counter the news from the state-owned Radio Nepal. They even experimented jamming the broadcast of state radio.
The FM radio stations in Nepal became very popular among the masses in cities as well as in villages. People tune in FM radio stations to know what is happening in their neighborhood and in the country and they trust the information coming from such independent FM stations over the state-run Radio Nepal. The royal government, in an effort to suppress alternative versions of truth and to spread his own propaganda through the state-run media, had put a ban in news broadcast from FM stations. In the absence of independent, people-oriented news outlets, many people in rural areas had no choice other than tuning in to BBC World Services or the Maoists radio stations in the region.
It is not that the army did not make use of media outlets. It used the government-owned Radio Nepal and Nepal Television (NTV) to counter the Maoists’ misinformation. In fact, the army has been operating a weekly television program through NTV entitled Aaphainle Dinu Pharchha, Dhartile Magdinun [One must give it, the soil does not ask for it] in order to disseminate information against terrorism in the country. It also runs a 15-minute radio program Nepali Sainik Karyakarm [Nepali Military Program] on Radio Nepal every Tuesdays and Fridays.
Growing popularity of frequency modulation technology throughout Nepal and the eroding credibility of the government-run media could be one of the reasons why the army wanted to go for FM radio station. Furthermore, it could give them unlimited broadcast time, unlike in Radio Nepal and Nepal Television. However, just operating the FM stations in itself is not going to be an achievement. It depends on how effectively the army can put out its propaganda campaign. Credibility is another important issue. People would not have taken the message coming out from the military radio as the only truth.
In Latin America, it was the social struggle of the 1960s and 1970s and the resistance to military dictatorship contributed to the proliferation of thousands of independent and community radio stations. Radio Miners in Bolivia had to face political repression. They challenged the monopoly of the state media and aired their own voices and the Bolivian army destroyed some of the stations repeatedly. In Europe, it was the centralized state owned broadcasting system that prompted the free radio movement and it slowed down with the liberalization and commercialization of the media. The free radio survived in countries in which the state refused to give up its monopoly. In the U.S., alternative networks started in 1949 with the establishment of KPFA by pacifists (influenced by the principles of non-violence and who refused to serve in World War II) and the in 1960s during the counterculture movement and rebellion against commercialization of mainstream media. The growth in the number of radio stations in Asia was due to privatization of media after 1980 as a part of neo-liberal economic policy. In Nepal, it was the post 1990 democratic environment that encouraged the civil society to push for liberating airwaves from the state monopoly.
The army operating its own radio station meant more control over the mass media that came under severe pressure and censorship since King Gynendra assumed direct rule. The decision of the MoIC to grant license to army to operate FM radio stations would have jeopardized the independence of the media. It limits the airwave space available for independent and unbiased voices. The proposed army radio could be less balanced in its perspective than independent FM radio stations. The army stations would further divide society.
Yes, it is not unusual in Nepal for a political party, which is fighting against the establishment, to run radio stations without license. In 1950, the Nepali Congress Party, which was fighting to overthrow the Rana regime and to establish democracy in the nation, had established a covert radio station in Bhojpur district in eastern Nepal (the government did not have its own radio station then). Today, the Maoists are doing just that.
But the Maoists themselves seem to realize that their radio stations do not serve a larger purpose beyond propaganda. Maoist leaders, including Prachanda have spoken via the independent FM radio stations instead of their own FM radio stations in order to reach the wider audience. Recently (June 9, 2006), Kantipur TV (an independent television in Nepal), carried an exclusive interview with Puspa Kamal Dahal. Now, after the recent ceasefire, the Maoists, like other political actors, have access to independent media that reaches to wider audiences. Furthermore, there is no more attraction for clandestine stations such as during the information famine under the king’s rule. In the changed political environment, there is no need for the Maoists to keep their FM radio stations to get their message out. This applies to the proposed army radio stations, too. In the changed political environment, it is time for the Maoists and the military to abandon their FM radio operation and leave it for the nation’s independent media.
The issue of media reform goes well beyond the Maoists or the army radio projects. A total media reform should address government ownership of the media. The government still owns Gorakhapatra, Radio Nepal and Nepal Television. In a true democracy, the government should not be in the business of broadcasting. There have been talks about making the government media free from political influence, but is has not happened yet. In talks and speeches leaders even promise to privatize the government media outlets, but it has remained a lip service.
Sweeping Media Reforms
The Nepali independent media, barely a decade young, suffered much during the 15 months of the royal rule. All the things that should not happen to independent media happened during those dark days of the king’s dictatorship.
Nepali media suffered but survived, and has emerged with more confidence. Their mission of restoring democracy has been fulfilled. Now it is time to work to strengthen the hard-won democracy and establish a lasting peace. In this time of building confidence among the political stakeholders in the democratic process, the government should not be in the business of running its own media.
Nepali civil society and the independent media have shown their competence in the struggle for the restoration of democracy; they will be equally capable in safeguarding and strengthening the people’s rights in the new political environment. Thus, the government should privatize its media; adopt far-reaching media reforms, beyond lip service. The reforms must truly reflect a democratic spirit. Such an initiative must begin with the definition of and distinction among the community, commercial, and public broadcasting in the nation. The government must immediately cancel the military license to operate its own FM radio stations. Furthermore, the organizations and political actors, who are concerned in managing both the Maoists and the government forces, should also give attention to deactivating their propaganda activities.
Arjun Banjade is a doctoral candidate in mass communication at the School of Telecommunications, Ohio University, USA. He has served as a faculty member at Tribhuvan University and as a consultant with Johns Hopkins University Nepal Office. He has published a number of papers in journals. His current research deals with community media in Nepal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Posted by Editor on June 9, 2006 11:47 PM