Community Radio in Nepal: Watchdog over Good Governance

Min Bahadur Shai, Nepal

Introduction

Modern States are run with democratic governance, which is not only about holding elections but also about an established relationship between the state and the citizens. A basic requirement for such a relationship is an informed citizenry.

The media acts on behalf of citizens against the interests of the state and other powers. There is a vital role for media to play in strengthening democratic governance and making the state accountable and responsive to its citizens. The media facilitates the formation of public opinion and catalyses public debates. Media issues, therefore, have a relevance to all aspects of good governance.

This paper is a briefing note about community media in the Nepalese context. The focus is on the work of the broadcasting media and its impact on government and public authorities.

Background

In Nepal, the evolution of governance, democratization and the media are interrelated since the fight started for liberating the nation from one hundred and three years of oligarchic rule of the Rana Regime. People demanded freedom of speech, and the popular wish in turn led to democratization movements for more than six decades in the middle of the twentieth century.

Nepali journalism, before the reinstatement of democracy in 1990, was divided as pro- and anti-ruling regime. Before 1990, there were only two state-owned broadsheet dailies, two broadcasting organizations – Radio Nepal and Nepal Television, and a news agency. There were very few publications from the non-government sector, and their reach was limited in the face of political and administrative controls.

Reinstatement of democracy in 1990 raised hopes for the potentials of the media to be realized. The Constitution, for the first time, guaranteed protection against arbitrary attacks on media houses. Like countries with democratic governance, the Nepalese Constitution accepted the right to information as state policy. It also guaranteed freedom of opinion and expression, and freedom of print and publication, which were believed to be necessary for social development.

The enforcement of the National Communication Policy and the National Broadcasting Act in 1993 paved the way for possible involvement of the private sector in media work. The incorporation of private companies such as Kantipur Publications broke the monopoly held by government owned media. The number of media kept on increasing, bringing more diversity. On the whole, the racial, gender and social movements further increased the need for the effective development of the mass media.

Unfortunately there also arose a culture of manipulating the media. Political parties and other influential non-governmental organizations began to use the media as their tool for advocating their interests, and even tried to mobilize the mass to achieve their goal. As a result, the media became the subject of attack if it failed to promote the vested interests of powerful groups. In 1996, Nepal’s Maoist Communist Party began an armed insurgency aimed at replacing the monarchical parliamentary democracy. Media workers in remote areas became targets. The professionalism of individual journalist was under attack if fair reporting did not serve the political agenda.

In 2003, King Gyanendra Shah suspended the parliamentary system and took over power. The media reacted by opposing the move, and many media workers and owners suffered. In 2006, the parliamentarians and Maoists joined hands, leading to the revival of the House of Representatives. An interim Constitution suspended the King’s position and the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly declared Nepal a republic. The same Constitution has provided press freedom, right to information and favourable clauses for media promotion.

A period of 12 years has passed. Nepali society has experienced many socio-political ups and downs. In the last couple of years, there have been dramatic changes in the political arena such as the successful integration of the Maoist insurgents into the political mainstream. Greater challenges lie ahead for a Nepal undergoing a transition that is affecting all aspects of life.

At present, the Nepali press faces a number of problems. As there are various interests, including fragmented armed groups representing ethnic and ethno-communal interests, the media has been subjected to threats from certain quarters. The nation’s security system is not strong enough to safeguard the media businesspersons as well as media professionals.

Community Radio in Nepal

Community radio services are independent and non-profit-making, run by institutions registered under the Organizations Registration Law and Cooperative Law. They are unlike commercial broadcasters which are registered under Company Registration Act, or stations run by the government. The different processes of registering indicate the dividing lines. There is no independent regulatory body to monitoring radio in Nepal.

The overall environment at first appeared favorable to the broadcast industry. Cheap FM technology became readily available after 1990. National broadcasting regulations in 1995 outlined some of the provisions for establishing and operating FM radio in Nepal. However, the unstable political environment, a leadership with little vision, and a bureaucracy used to old ways, all turned out to be major obstacles for the growth of the radio industry.

Groups working for social justice and balanced development gradually became active by questioning unfair distribution in the society. FM became an effective means of communication, and the development of community radio surpassed the others. As community radio started to promote the notion of transparency in the public sector, its number increased dramatically.

More than two hundred licenses have been issued by the government to establish community radio services. 144 stations are in operation at present. The stations cover the plain to the Himalayan communities with a variety of ethnic, linguistic and cultural pluralities. Most community broadcasters aim at serving the rural population -- deprived communities and minorities who have little access to public resources and government services. Although community radio covers both rural and urban populations, the priority is about the rural communities. Therefore, community radio in Nepal may be referred to as rural broadcasting.

Governance and Role of Media

The concept of democratic governance is a bit complex as it involves some crucial qualitative indicators. It is difficult to measure qualitative phenomena, but some of the indicators may be interpreted through quantifiable scales. Fundamentally, the concept of governance is about the process of decision-making and implementing the decisions taken. It has to do with the operation of the government and delivery of public services to the people, though governance can be used in other contexts such as corporate governance, international governance, national governance and local governance. The process of deciding and implementing is to be participatory, consensus oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and must follow the rule of law.

Socio-political conflicts have put Nepali media as a whole in a particularly difficult situation. Media is strategized by many power groups, including the major political parties and the fragmented armed wings of various political identities. Furthermore, the underworld exerts a strong influence by taking advantage of the fragile socio-political patterns in the regions and across the nation. These all pose challenges and threats over the professionalism of the media, and community radio is not an exception.

Openness, accountability and transparency are considered important elements of the rule of law. Governance is to be understood as open, transparent, accountable and responsible performance of public officials and service delivery agencies. Media has a role to ensure that the people have full oversight and ownership over public performances as well as resources. This is in addition to many of the other challenges confronting community radio in Nepal.

Community Media for Bettering Governance

It is widely acknowledged that the best way to deliver information to people across Nepal and empower them is through community based audio media. Apart from helping to strengthen political, economic and social governance, community radio in Nepal has taken up the following functions.

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless in the New Constitutional Setup

As Nepal is in the course of preparing a new constitution, community radio can promote the inclusion of favourable provisions for the protection of the marginalized and disadvantaged rural communities. This role can be pursued through programmes on the rights of ethnic groups, dalits, women and disabled people. The concerns of local people can be brought up in the media -- for example, ownership of local resources can be discussed while decisions are being made on their utilization.

Empowering Rural Population by Informing, Communicating and Educating

In a situation where most of the people are illiterate and the area is difficult to reach, print is not an effective medium. Community audio media has come to play an important role in this regard as it can reach both the literate and illiterate. Its operation is in local dialects, it is close to the community, and the interaction is direct and prompt. Therefore, community media serves to empower people to recognize, protect and promote their rights.

Facilitating Accountability and Responsiveness of Government at Local Level

Nepal’s present governance structure has two layers of local government, i.e. district branches of government ministries and local bodies (municipal and village development committees). One of the functions of community radio is to monitor the performance of these entities. There are programmes designed to facilitate the process. Many community radio broadcasters have initiated forums for dialogue, tackling issues of public concern, and making it possible for government and public authorities to respond to queries from the public. They also organize auditing forums that examine the financial status of particular projects or services, probing into issues such as misappropriation, embezzlement, poor service quality and consumer rights.

Bringing Citizens’ Needs to the Attention of Public Authorities

Local communities are deprived ones whose requirements are often not understood by public authorities. Community radio stations have been, through their programmes, instrumental in highlighting local people’s needs and exposing the potential of the communities. This has helped government agencies and local bodies to improve both their current services and future plans.

Making Community Concerns as Part and Parcel of the National Agenda

Normally, the focus of community broadcasts is on issues relevant to local people. However, as part of the media industry, it is also their responsibility to disseminate information about crucial community issues nationwide. Nepali community broadcasters, collectively known as ACORAB, have launched a satellite network to facilitate the sharing of national and community issues. This has the effect of making community concerns part and parcel of the national agenda, attracting the attention of government agencies and helping the policy formulation process.

Engendering and Promoting Social Inclusion

If we view the role played by the community broadcasters in Nepal from the development perspectives, we will find them effective advocates of social inclusion campaigns. Community stations have been airing programmes that enhance the notion of gender equality and other forms of social inclusion. They have given encouragements to local communities to strive for higher standards and internationally accepted practices.

Enhancing Media Environment and Maintaining Ethical Standards

Democratic governance does not only mean asking others to adhere to ethical standards, it is also for advocates themselves to show that they mean what they say. Community broadcasters have been collectively demanding the government for effective community media policies, laws and regulations that are essential to good governance. Most of them are associated with ACORAB and accept the need for adhering to ethical standards. A set of ethical codes for radio journalists has been established by ACORAB, which is in addition to guidelines issued by the Press Council of Nepal. The community media workers are observing the codes voluntarily, which has enhanced the keeping-up of ethical standards by radio professionals.

Conclusion

Showing vibrancy in spirit and performance, community radio broadcasters have demonstrated that they are responsible actors for the promotion of good governance.

They have established their own governance policy framework to operate the stations and programmes, such as --:

• Consensus oriented programming with participation of local people

• Accountable to local communities and society at large

• Transparent in operations

• Bound by laws applicable

• Effective and efficient in professional performance

• Emphasizing equity, justice and inclusion

• Responsive to audiences at all levels

Mr Min Bahadur Shai is President of the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (ACORAB), Nepal