A look at Nepal’s radio movement that has come a long way

Even as India dithers over the idea of allowing private FM radio stations to broadcast news bulletins, its Himalayan neighbour Nepal has established a noteworthy trail in the field.

Currently, FM stations in India have the permission to broadcast news borrowed from All India Radio, the government radio channel, while being permitted to also air other non-news and current affairs programs.

Compare this with Nepal’s more than 350 private FM channels that operate there and have the option of carrying news on their shows. In fact, there are 475 stations that have got licenses and some of them are in the process of starting operations, says Mr Devraj Humagain of Martin Chautari, a research and discussion group organisation.

The radio movement in Nepal has crossed a long way and today, the radio is the most powerful medium for relaying news to the urban and particularly rural areas, places inaccessible to mainstream print, television and internet.

Media freedom and existence of democracy are complimentary and the history of radio in Nepal displays this relationship well.

When democracy was established in 1951, the media was promoted, but restricted again in 1960 when the then king dismantled the democratically elected government, according to a policy paper by Martin Chautari. “Following the restoration of democracy in 1990, the hitherto restricted media became free again and radio became open through the private sector. Following the establishment of Radio Nepal in 1951, for about half a century radio transmission was monopolised by the State. The 1990 constitution guaranteed the right to information, and press freedom and freedom of expression. In 1993 after the new broadcasting policy was formulated, the entry of the private sector in the broadcasting realm was recognised at the policy level for the first time. The National Broadcasting Act, 1993 and the National Broadcasting Regulation, 1995 followed. Private sector radio began to operate according to these regulations.

“FM started covering news – political, social, hot debates and everything in between. But somebody challenged the law and in 2002, the Supreme Court of Nepal gave a verdict that allowed FM radio to broadcast news. During the direct rule of the King in 2005-06, he tried to ban news, but again SC issued stay orders against it. Now there is constitutional guarantee, nobody can stop FM from broadcasting,” says Devraj.

Given the fact that just under half the population in Nepal is illiterate, the economy is weak and there is inadequate infrastructure, the radio remains the most powerful medium of communication in that country, according to the policy paper.

Unsurprisingly, since the establishment of FM radio, citizen’s access to information has increased.

This has led to attempts by political parties or other interests to co-opt the medium by investing in it and opened up its potential to be misused during elections. But in the long run, most of them have realised that they cannot survive in the market by being the mouthpiece of a particular interest group. “The operating costs or regular operations have to be taken care of and to stay competitive in the market, one has to participate professionally or can be wiped out,” explains Devraj.

Despite such long strides, there is a feeling that much more can be done. For instance, the operational management of FM radios remains in the hands of the powerful and FM radios have been unable to play their expected roles for the rights of the poor and marginalised, according to the policy paper.

“When the licenses for radio operation are opened to the public, it is the elites who are first to receive licenses enabled by their access to power,” says Devraj.

Secondly, there is a need to have a uniform radio policy for the various stations in operation. FM radios have been established by private companies, non-governmental organisations, co-operatives, government bodies such as the elected local bodies, Radio Nepal and the Metropolitan Traffic Police department and educational institutions. All of these organisations have differing purposes and priorities. There are groups that seek to profit by selling their productions (programmes) in the market just as any other business oriented industries. In contrast, other groups seek to exchange information with target groups or communities while raising awareness on developmental issues. Even when the radios classify themselves as commercial or community, based on the ownership, the simple categorisation is fraught with ambiguities.

“There is a need for a uniform policy that legally identifies different types of radio,’ says Devraj. For the moment, India can take a leaf or two out of Nepal’s radio movement.