Published: Saturday 30 April 2005

Radio Sagarmatha still defies< Community Radio Nepal

After a recent five-day mission to Nepal, representatives of the South Asian Free Media Association assured Nepali journalists that they would initiate a campaign for press freedom in the country. "But things won't be that easy," reckons Bhairab Risal, a veteran Nepali journalist. Once a haven for journalists, Nepal has become a veritable hell for them after the monarchy took total control on February 1 this year. Three of them are behind the bars and according to the Federation of Nepali Journalists around 1000 radio journalists have lost their jobs.

Once a shining example The most affected are the country's fm community radio stations. Before the crackdown, Nepal's community radio stations were held up as great success stories. The country's radio revolution began with the launch of Radio Sagarmatha in 1996. The country's first community radio station that opened in a shabby Kathmandu room set the trend for 46 others. Some such as Radio Madanpokhara in Palpa began in a cowshed. A new design of dokos (a basket) with small wicker pockets where women gathering fodder could put their radios became the vogue across Nepal. Shepherds on pastures heard studio discussions on Radio Karnali, while bus drivers along the highways in Chitwan got important information live on the status of the roads through their radios.

The royal coup The February coup changed all that. On 4 February this year, Nepal's information ministry released a circular to all fm stations, which forced them to limit broadcasting "pure entertainment-based programs" and not air "news, information, thoughts/ideas and expression". 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. Says Raghu Mainali, president of the Community Broadcasters' Association says, " They (the government) do not allow us to even talk about the importance of polio vaccine." "People were addicted to information, now they do not have any source for it except the government or the Maobadi (the Maoists') radio. They choose the latter," says a journalist from Siraha. The Maoists run around 10 mobile fm radio station, which have capacity of 100 watt and can reach 30 sq km.

Not all have, however, given up. Radio Sagarmatha does broadcast programmes related to dalits and on health issues. And Nepal's information ministry has also asked them for explanation. Mohan Bista, station manager of the radio says, "Since we are the pioneers in this field, we have to show some courage, but then we have not criticised government in any form."

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