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Last Updated: Friday, 22 April, 2005, 09:00 GMT 10:00 UK
The muzzling of Nepalese radio

By Charles Haviland
BBC News, Kathmandu

Radio Sagarmatha office, Kathmandu
The clampdown has received widespread criticism

In the main room at Radio Sagarmatha (Radio Everest) music from the live transmission wafts around as journalists joke.

But the buzz is missing. This used to be the newsroom. Nowadays journalists sit writing sports reports.

Bulletins and phone-ins have gone, replaced by expensive pre-recorded features.

FM stations, which reach 70% of Nepal's population, include both community channels like Sagarmatha and dozens of commercial ones.

They are the sector hardest hit by the clampdown on the media since King Gyanendra imposed direct royal rule in February in a move to boost the fight against Nepal's Maoist rebels.

Unlike television and newspapers, radio - apart from the official Radio Nepal - has been forbidden to broadcast news and told to stick to what is termed "entertainment".

Staff panic

Radio Sagarmatha, which serves Kathmandu and surrounding districts, keeps recordings of every transmission since it started in 1997, when it became Nepal's first independent FM station.

Radio Sagarmatha newsroom
The Radio Sagarmatha newsroom is now a lot less lively

But the news bulletins are sounding like history.

Station manager Mohan Bista recalls what happened on 1 February, while the King was delivering his speech and extolling press independence.

"When the army came here at 10 in the morning they started to pull our phone cables and instructed our staff not to talk," he remembers.

"They were pointing guns and moving everywhere - inside the studio, control room and newsroom. All the staff panicked."

The army at first ordered Mr Bista not to transmit any speech programmes - only music.

They only relented on learning of the social and environmental issues Radio Sagarmatha covers in exchange for funding from development NGOs.

Now they have to concentrate on those, and steer off anything political. Mr Bista says that knowing where to draw the line involves continual self-censorship.

Forbidden to broadcast

"Most of time after broadcasting we are thinking, what happens next if the ministry asks questions?" he remarks.

"Every time [we] are thinking what to broadcast and not to broadcast - it's a very difficult situation."

Most of Nepal's 17 community stations serve remote rural areas, airing topics like health or women's and children's welfare.

I'm working with some hope that after a little time we can broadcast the programmes the people want
Former Radio Sagarmatha news anchorman Kiran Pokhrel

Raghu Mainali, president of the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters, says most have been unluckier than Sagarmatha and are forbidden even to broadcast on social matters.

Into the information vacuum has stepped one channel - the Maoist rebels' radio.

"They broadcast pure propaganda," he says. "And people get a lot of rumours and feel insecure now - and they don't have any alternative source of information."

The community stations have at least been largely able to keep their staff. But at commercial news stations, many jobs have been lost.

Radio news journalist Sunita (not her real name) witnessed soldiers camping at her office for two weeks.

A Ministry of Information notice arrived saying the station must transmit only entertainment.

"At that point I thought to myself: you'll be fired," Sunita says.

After a month coming to the office with nothing to do, she and other colleagues were told they were redundant.

"We gave our resignation letters. It was sad, it was really pathetic."

Non-political news

Up to 1,000 such journalists have lost their jobs while their stations switch to a diet made up mainly of music.

The Information Minister in the royal cabinet, Tanka Dakhal, has been quoted as saying that FM stations internationally are not in the habit of broadcasting news.

He has also indicated that Nepali stations will soon be able to transmit non-political news. The BBC sought an interview him but was unsuccessful.

Among the political mainstream it is difficult to find a voice supporting the clampdown.

Nepal's King Gyanendra
King Gyanendra seized power in February

Roshan Karki speaks for the strongly pro-monarchy National Democratic Party (RPP), many of whose leaders come from the pre-multi-party era.

She says that if information doesn't flow, for instance, people cannot help the authorities counter the Maoists.

"If you show the bullet, people can only fear. Fear is not democracy," she says.

Some radio services are seeing what they can get away with. Raghu Mainali says some are, for instance, releasing news about rural violence into chats between two people in the studio.

Others are starting to present news under the label "activities".

At Radio Sagarmatha, former news discussion anchorman Kiran Pokhrel admits that his job has changed "by 90 degrees... but I'm working with some hope that after a little time we can broadcast the programmes the people want".

No one is sure when that day will come.

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