Radio Sagarmatha: Kathmandu’s Beacon of hope on 102.4 MHz turns 10

Today, 23 May 2007 is a very special day for broadcasting in South Asia.

Radio Sagarmatha, the first independent community broadcasting station in South Asia, completes 10 years on the air today. It’s certainly a moment to reflect and rejoice for all of us concerned with broadcasting and the public interest in Asia.

Image courtesy Radio Sagarmatha

Here’s how the station introduces itself on its website:
Broadcasting daily from the center of the Kathmandu Valley on FM 102.4 MHz from 5 am to 11 pm, the pioneering radio station has earned a name as a free, independent and highly credible radio station in keeping with its objectives of producing a cadre of professional journalists, addressing the information needs of audiences, stimulating awareness and participation in public issues, and facilitating democratization and pluralism.

The Sagarmatha story is of particular interest to me personally.

Firstly, many involved in founding and running this station are good Nepali friends whose resolve and professionalism I salute on this 10th birthday.

Secondly, this radio station exposed to the whole world a persistent myth that was fabricated and distributed globally by Unesco and its local cronies: that community radio has been thriving in Sri Lanka from the early 1980s. I’ve lived all my life in Sri Lanka, and I’ve spent the past 20 years working in the media, but I have yet to find a single community radio station there — simply because no government has allowed any to be set up! I’ve been writing about this for years, but I’m a lone voice against Unesco’s well-funded ‘myth factory’ working overtime! Read my Panos Feature: Radio suffers as Colombo bosses callthe shots (October 2003).

But enough of that old hat. Today is Sagarmatha’s Day! Happy birthday to the courageous public radio station and everyone involved, past and present.

Recently, supporting the radio station’s nomination for an international media award (to be announced soon), I wrote a brief account about Sagarmatha. It has not been published until now, so here it is, with minor edits:

Kathmandu’s Silent Revolution

Almost a decade ago, a silent revolution started in the Nepali capital of Kathmandu. One day in May 1997, a senior official of the Ministry of Communications handed over a piece of paper to Raghu Mainali, representing a group of Nepali journalists and civil society organisations. It was the broadcast license permitting the first-ever citizen-owned, non-commercial, public interest radio broadcasting station anywhere in South Asia. Soon afterwards, Radio Sagarmatha (RS) was on the air, using the FM frequency 102.4 MHz.

The airwaves will never be the same again in the world’s most populous sub-region, where governments had a strict monopoly over broadcasting for decades.

The broadcast license did not come easily: it was under consideration for over four years, and entailed considerable lobbying by Nepali journalists and civil society groups. At the forefront in this quest was the Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists (NEFEJ), a non-governmental organisation and a collective of journalists strongly committed to sustainable development, human rights and media freedom.

The senior and highly respected Nepali journalist Bharat Koirala provided advice and leadership for setting up RS, which was cited when he was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award — ‘Asia’s Nobel Prize’ — in 2002.

Read a brief history of Radio Sagarmatha on its website

As a long-standing partner of NEFEJ, we have had the opportunity to observe the evolution of RS from humble beginnings to what it is today. Remarkably, NEFEJ colleagues had laid the groundwork for the radio station in anticipation of the license: the hardware, manpower and institutional framework were ready to go on the air soon after official sanction. Beginning with an initial two hours of broadcasts, RS gradually increased its transmissions, providing a mix of music, news and current affairs, sports and cultural entertainment to the Kathmandu city and valley — home to nearly 2 million people. While broadcasting primarily in Nepali, it also carries programming in minority languages and English. In recent years, RS has also rebroadcast selected programmes from BBC World Service Nepali transmissions.

Image courtesy BBC Online Image courtesy Radio Sagarmatha

RS blazed a new trail in broadcasting in Nepal, and in its wake a large number of commercial FM stations and other community broadcasting stations have been set up. The Kathmandu valley’s hills are alive with a cacophony of voices, offering the people a greater choice than ever before. Across Nepal, RS has inspired a plethora of community-owned, community-based radio stations, who are enjoying different degrees of success. RS has also trained a significant number of radio professionals – from announcers and producers to technicians – some of who have moved on to employment with other channels. This commitment to capacity building continues.

In today’s multi-channel environment, RS retains its strong commitment to the public interest, good journalism and high production values. Among others, the following distinguishes this station:

• RS increases people’s participation in debating important day-to-day issues that directly affect their lives and jobs. Roaming producers talk to not just city dwellers but to people living in the most remote areas of Kathmandu.

• RS serves as a people’s forum to examine the merits and demerits of various development policies, efforts and approaches in Nepal, undertaken by government, development donors, civil society and others.

• RS has played its part to bridge Nepal’s digital divide. Suchana Prabidhi dot com (meaning ‘Information technology dot com’) is a popular programme that browses the Internet live on radio, connecting the unconnected radio listeners with information available online.

• In spite of being supported by a large number of development donors, including some UN agencies, RS has maintained its editorial independence, without allowing itself to become a propaganda outlet for any entity.

But it was in Nepal’s recent pro-democracy struggles that Radio Sagarmatha’s commitment to the public interest was truly tested and reaffirmed. The station joined human rights activists, progressive journalists and civil society groups in the mass movement for political reform, including the restoration of parliamentary democracy suspended by the King’s autocratic rule. The regime – seeking complete control over Nepalis’ access to information and independent opinions – imposed a blanket ban on private broadcasters carrying news. Soldiers were posted inside and around Radio Sagarmatha for eight days. Even after they withdrew, the spectre of absolute monarchy hung over all media for months.

Read BBC Online story: The Muzzling of Nepalese Radio (22 April 2005)

Read IPS story: Nepal plunged into the Dark Ages, cry dissidents

Soldier outside Radio Sagarmatha station - bad old days, now gone

That seige continued for much of 2005. On 27 November 2005, I was with some NEFEJ colleagues at a regional media workshop in Siem Reap, Cambodia, when the disturbing news reached us that RS had been forced off the air after police raided the station, seized its transmission equipment and arrested five journalists and technicians. The incident had happened while RS was relaying BBC Nepali Service live from London.

Fortunately, the judiciary intervened. Two days later, responding to a massive outcry from within and outside Nepal, the Supreme Court ordered the authorities to allow RS to continue its transmissions. The station started broadcasting news and current affairs again, and other stations soon found their courage.

The next few months leading to April 2006 were crucial for all associated with the pro-democracy movement. During this period, amidst various pressures, threats and obstacles, the managers and journalists at RS played a pivotal role in ensuring the free flow of information and plurality of views in Nepal. When broadcasting news was banned, RS resorted to innovative ways of getting information across while getting around the jack-boot of bureaucracy.

One method: singing the day’s news — as there was no restriction on broadcasting musical content!

The unwavering resolve of RS, other independent media and pro-democracy activists led to the restoration of parliamentary democracy in April 2006 and the subsequent marginalization of the monarchy. Now the pioneering radio station is working hard to ensure that Nepalis would make better use of their ‘second chance’ in democracy in less than two decades.

As Radio Sagarmatha now enters its second decade, there is much unfinished business: Nepal is one of the most impoverished countries in the world, held back by a decade of civil war. A free, independent and responsible media – epitomized by Radio Sagarmatha – will be essential for Nepal to break from the past and usher in a new era of peace, prosperity and equality.

Listen to Radio Sagarmatha Online

World Association of Community Broadcasters (AMARC) Asia Pacific website