Democracy in Nepal: The Role of Community Radio
What role did community media play in helping to restore democracy in Nepal? In October 2006, James Deane, managing director of strategy for the Communication for Social Change Consortium, facilitated a panel at the World Congress on Communication for Development, which took place in Rome. The panel focused on the role of community media in development. The panel's organisers were AMARC (the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters), SDC (the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation) and UNESCO. Raghu Mainaly, a founder of Nepal's Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, spoke with Deane. In this interview, he explains the critical role of community media in encouraging democratic principles.
Background: In April 2006, Nepal saw the culmination and resolution of a profound political crisis during which the country's king seized absolute power, disbanded democratic parties and closed down many media outlets. The country had undergone a decade-long civil war between Maoist rebels and the government during which more than 13,000 people died. Since these events in April of this year, when large parts of the population took to the streets in mostly peaceful protest, democracy has been restored and the Maoist rebels have called a ceasefire and entered the political process.
What follows are excerpts from Deane's interview with Mainaly during the World Congress.
James Deane: I want to start by introducing Raghu Mainaly. Raghu is one of the founders and foremost advocates for community radio in Nepal, specifically of the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters in Nepal and vice president of the AMARC Asia (World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters).
Raghu, let's start by talking about Nepal. Now, in my country, England, whenever Nepal is mentioned on the news, the newscasters tend to dismiss Nepal as "a tiny Himalayan kingdom."¯ This patronising term suggests that Nepal is an inconsequential country. Is that right? Why should anyone take what happens in this country seriously?
Raghu Mainaly: It's not so tiny and is, in fact, bigger than your country and has higher mountains!
Deane: And it's sandwiched, isn't it, between the two new global superpowers, China and India.
Mainaly: Yes, right in between.
Deane: So strategically speaking, Nepal is quite important. I understand from some environmentalists that something like one fifth of humanity derives their fresh water from the Himalayas. That's one important reason that what happens in Nepal matters both for its own citizens and internationally. And a lot happened in Nepal in 2005 and 2006. Raghu, tell us about the events leading up to April 2006 and the seismic political change that has happened there in the last year or so.
Mainaly: Something happened in Nepal this year that has never happened before in our history. About four million people out of a total population of 22 million came out onto the streets.
Deane: So what brought those people out onto the streets? Give us a little bit of background on the political crisis in the country.
Mainaly: In February 2005, our king took over all political power in the country. He started governing through direct rule, and this was a situation that we never imagined would happen. His forces cut off all Internet connections, phone lines and transport links. They even sealed off our international airport. The army deployed to all media houses and either arrested political leaders or placed them under house arrest.
Deane: So this is a mass seizure of power by the king. We are talking about effectively undoing any semblance of democracy in the country?
Mainaly: Yes, and all of us lived in fear, in fact, in a kind of state of terror.
Deane: So earlier this year, what happened? There were suddenly four million people on the streets. What made four million people come out onto the streets of Nepal?
Mainaly: This time, this year, the situation became very different. Previously, professionals"”media professionals, lawyers, doctors, engineers and civil society leaders"”led much [of the resistance to the king]. And political parties led the democratic movement. But the political parties lost their faith in the people. Every time the people went out onto the streets, the political leaders told them to go back and not come to the rally.
Deane: Are you suggesting here that this was a crisis of legitimacy of a whole political class?
Mainaly: Yes, that class lost their faith in the people and had no moral grounds on which to appeal to the people.
Deane: So there were many different actors in this political drama: There was the king, government, political parties, professional classes, civil-society leaders and, of course, the Maoist rebels. What was missing from this debate? This movement? These changes? Was it the people? The lack of the people's voices informing the political crisis?
Mainaly: Yes, and the main cause for that was that all political leaders were corrupt and irresponsible, in terms of listening to and acting on behalf of the people. Instead, they exercised a lot of power for their own personal benefit.
Deane: Can you make connection between this extraordinary event of four million people coming out onto the streets in generally peaceful protest and community media in Nepal?
Mainaly: Yes, there is a direct correlation. From the very beginning, community media programmes went out telling people that freedom of speech and freedom of expression were the people's rights, not just a media person's rights. We educated people from the beginning about their rights, using programmes very strategically to attract the attention of people, arranging a lot of unique events that would get onto the front pages of the newspapers and international media also. Then we tried to involve all the professionals and called for solidarity and did many events with the people.
Deane: Who is "we"¯ here?
Mainaly: Basically the radio broadcasters who had constituted an independent radio movement in Nepal that involved all community and commercial radio broadcasters in the country.
Deane: How many radio stations are there in Nepal?
Mainaly: More than 50 radio stations across the whole of Nepal. These cover more than 65 percent of the total population.
Deane: Does this radio network reach the majority [geography] of the country?
Mainaly: Yes. And this network started working together as soon as the king began banning the news. In fact, we were told, "don't broadcast anything except music!"¯ So then we started singing the news!
Deane: You sang the news?
Mainaly: [LAUGHS.] So we sang the news, because government had not banned the content, only the form in which it could be delivered.
Deane: So just to be clear, this was not just one radio station, but a whole network of radio stations who were using very imaginative ways of continuing to report on the crisis?
Mainaly: Yes, and then we started to read the constitution to people, particularly those articles with most relevance to poor people. We read these in Nepali and more than 20 local languages.
Deane: So this was a process of really informing people about their constitutional, legal rights within the context of this political crisis?
Mainaly: Yes, both of the rights of the people and the role and duties of the government. The king had said he had taken these steps to resolve the political crisis. But, instead of dealing with the threat of the Maoist terror, his actions were leading to more fear, ignorance and terror. And looking at situations in other countries, we could not find any examples of where the kinds of steps he had taken had worked. Every hour, we broadcast music to all the stations, the content of which was: "From every village and every home, wake up and defend the interests of the country. If you have a pen, wake up with a pen. If you have an instrument, wake up with an instrument. And if you have nothing in your hand, raise your voice."¯ We broadcast that music every hour.
Deane: Why was protest peaceful? Was there anything this radio network was doing that made this protest a forceful, mass response of four million people, but one that was, nevertheless, a largely peaceful one on the streets?
Mainaly: We broadcast a lot of interviews with civil society leaders, doctors, engineers, lawyers, university teachers and others and we tried to turn all these interviews into a peaceful situation, so all these people requested the people to act peacefully. We were creating a forum for a range of people to come and appeal to the people to protest but to do so peacefully.
Deane: But were you not yourselves also broadcasting messages warning of the dangers of violence?
Mainaly: Yes, when there were four million people out on the street, and some of us were in jail, we broadcast every half-hour"”a short spot urging peaceful protest.
Deane: Saying what?
Mainaly: These spots were about one minute long, and the content was that the country had suffered greatly from violence for many years, and that more conflict is not the way to get freedom and peace. "Please,"¯ we said, "follow the peaceful way."¯
Deane: So, here you are, there are four million people out on the streets, a community media movement reaching 65 percent of the population, and your claim is that an awful lot of that protest"”and the peaceful manner of that protest"”is substantially attributable to what the community media movement was doing in the country?
Mainaly: Yes, we believe that, and we believe that communication is the fuel for everything"”for democracy, for development and for many other things. Without fuel, the light was very dim. We poured the fuel, and the light became very bright.
Deane: For those who are looking at supporting community media, how long has it taken to get to where you are now? What needed to happen to get to where you are now as a movement within the country?
Mainaly: For this particular movement it took about 15 months. For the community media movement as a whole, it's been a decade-long struggle.
Deane: And was this entirely from your own resources? Or did external organisations help?
Mainaly: Yes, we got a lot of support. This was not an individual, or even just an organisational effort, but a national effort and an international effort with so many organisations involved. First, we have to name UNESCO, which helped support us from the very beginning. We heard about community radio and FM through UNESCO's Mr. Wijananda Jayaweera, who suggested many things to us. As a result of his advice, we started Radio Sagarmatha as a project. And, I should point to AMARC, which was our backbone during the time of crisis. The international media mission to Nepal was another major source of strength.
Deane: And what was the role of technology in all this? What was the role of the new technologies, in terms of Internet, mobile telephony, satellite and so on?
Mainaly: The role was very important, but the role of technology is always auxiliary. If we want to do something, then the technology supports and enables us.
Deane: But weren't these radio stations linked across the country?
Mainaly: Yes an independent production house helped enable that.
Deane: And what was the policy and legislative environment like for community media in Nepal? And can you bring us up to date on what is happening now?
Mainaly: Before, there was legislation for community media. Then, for a time, even the constitution was effectively suspended. That meant we had no space to talk about particular legislation. Now, the new democratic government is very liberal and positive. Within two months, the new government granted more than 30 licences for community radio. They have also constituted a high-level media commission, tasked with developing conditions for a healthy, vibrant local and pluralistic media. The government is being careful not to give the monopoly of media to any one company, either economically or ideologically.
Deane: So let's be clear about what is being said here. We are at the World Congress for Communication for Development, and we are often asked about the impact of our work and for evidence that it makes a difference.
You're saying that it took a long time. It took 10 years to get to where we are now? That perhaps the impact after three or five years was quite difficult to discern, but, after 10 years, you're not talking about a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand people being educated. You're talking about a society fundamentally being transformed? You're saying that transformation would not have taken place without community media? Is that the claim being made here?
Mainaly: Yes. The so-called mainstream media was not communicating. They were dumping information as if dumping the garbage. We are trying to produce an act of communicating. We are not manufacturing consent. We are not manufacturing the news. We are trying to develop discussion and consensus about common issues.
Deane: So really, you are not just talking about rights and people speaking out"”although that is at the heart of it"”you are talking about effective development, development that is sustainable and democratic? That democracy is being made real in Nepal as a result of this kind of work? And I just say that because we, in this field, have to articulate our work in terms of inputs and outputs and outcomes. These are important, but, clearly, your input led to a series of outputs that led to a series of outcomes that were truly extraordinary in terms of its impact, with that impact being democracy in Nepal. And yet it is work that has largely fallen outside of conventional development support.
Deane: Raghu, thank you very much, indeed.