Nepalese community radio makes democratic reforms inclusive

by Suman Pradhan, Inter Press Service

Nearly four months after successfully pushing the fight against royal dictatorship, community radio stations in Nepal are at the forefront of another revolution -- turning the airwaves into an educational medium for constitutional reforms.

Several stations in the capital of Kathmandu and outlying areas, including in this south-central highway town, have been broadcasting programmes aimed at raising awareness about constitutional issues. The aim is to positively influence the constitution-making process for an inclusive and democratic Nepal, say station managers.

"We are doing what we can, with the resources we have," says Hari Sapkota, station manager of 'Vijaya FM', a community station located in Gaindakot, on the Narayani river. "We are finding that many listeners want to participate in these programmes and air their personal views on what the constitution should be like."

This is a unique moment in Nepal's chequered history. A Hindu monarchy for the last 237 years, this impoverished nation of 26 million has frequently witnessed upheavals and revolutions. The last one came in April, when a spirited 19-day people's movement toppled the dictatorial rule of King Gyanendra and re-established democratic rule by an alliance of seven political parties. The agenda of that new government is writing a new constitution through an elected constituent assembly.

Rebel Maoists, who have waged a violent 10-year-old people's war to overthrow the monarchy, and who have most vociferously pushed the agenda for a new constitution, are aiding the process by aligning with the parties and observing a ceasefire. This has allowed the political space in Nepal to expand, allowing diverse voices to flourish.

Today in Nepal, the media, particularly community radio and print, are at the forefront of this debate for a new constitution bringing in myriad voices from all political shades. But the most striking fact is that many of these voices are from the grassroots - local citizens in small towns and villages who want to have their say.

Vijaya FM's regular current affairs programming, for instance, routinely gives voice to local listeners. "They participate with a keen interest. The people are trying to understand how this process will affect them," says Sapkota.

In some ways, this is a victory for the Maoists who, in the course of their war, have made constitutional reforms the main agenda of the entire nation. ''There's no question, we want a new constitution that will give all the marginalised groups a say in power on the basis of proportional representation," says Matrika Yadav, a senior Maoist leader and chairman of the Maoist-aligned Terai Liberation Front. The Front purports to represent the interests of Nepal's ‘Madheshi' population concentrated in the southern plains adjoining India, called the Terai.

Most of all, though, the Maoists want a republican constitution. "We will not be satisfied unless Nepal is turned into a democratic republican state," says Yadav. "That is our main agenda."

That agenda of a new constitution is getting wide play. The Maoists operate their own FM radio station "Janganatantra Nepal" which regularly airs current affairs programmes urging a republican polity. Though other stations shy away from such clear-cut demands, everyone recognises the opportunity offered by the present situation.

"Our grassroots citizens want to be heard, and radio is playing a facilitating role," says Mohan Bista, station manager of the Kathmandu-based Radio Sagarmatha, Nepal's first community FM station which opened in 1997 and now has over 20 radio stations across the country in its network. "We see our work as a bridge connecting the aspirations of rural communities with the political parties and policy-makers."

Radio Sagarmatha does this by regularly injecting common voices into its regular programming. "Though we don't have a programme yet devoted solely to constitutional reforms, in all our current affairs programmes, we ensure that community voices get play," says Bista.

That is the modus operandi of almost all the stations. Phone-ins are popular, as are short Vox Populi-type discussions. Many radio managers lament the lack of funds for specifically producing constitutional programmes. But this is now being addressed as donors begin to pour in money into the constitutional debate.

Antenna Foundation, a production and clearing house for public issues-based radio programmes, is currently preparing such a programme to raise awareness about constitutional issues. That would not have been possible without donor support. "Our programme will be aired within a few days and carried over all across the country by about 25 community stations," says Madhu Acharya, director of Antenna Foundation. "The programme simplifies what a constituent assembly is, how it works, where it has been tried before, and what are the issues it could take up. We of course will be including local citizens in this debate."

The debate, though stirring, is still largely confined to community radio since most private commercial stations remain focussed on entertainment-based programmes where the real money is.

A commercial radio manager requesting anonymity said that his station would air public-affairs programming only if paid for by others. Otherwise, they are largely satisfied with their current affairs programmes which do air constitutional debates from time to time -- though from the perspective of leaders and experts rather than that of the common citizen.

This underscores the peculiar quirk in Nepal's radio movement: stations with the financial muscle remain aloof from educational programmes, whereas the ones that seek to push awareness barriers lack funds. "Unless these (commercial) stations realise that there is money to be made by facilitating a healthy debate for constitutional reforms and stable society, I'm afraid they won't be terribly interested," sighs Bista.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey