Kunda Dixit is not only a household name among the media savvy, newspaper reading audience of Nepal but also a well-known figure in the international media community. The Columbia University trained journalist worked for the BBC World Service, in UN and as Regional Editor for Inter Press Service Asia Pacific, before he returned to Nepal and launched Himalmedia, which has become a popular and credible source of information and analysis on democracy and governance issues in South Asia. Mr. Dixit is also the author of a trilogy of books (A People War, Never Again, People After War) on the Nepal conflict that is regarded as a model for the media's role in post-war reconciliation.
Recently, Kunda Dixit grabbed the attention of Sina, CommGAP’s program head, when he spoke about the massive role played by community radio in the democratic transition in Nepal. Sina asked me to follow-up on the story for a blog post, which I did, but decided it is best served if I directly post my online interview with Mr. Dixit, which is as follows:
What is your impression of the role of community radio in development efforts in Nepal and how did it contribute to democratic transition in the country?
Let me touch upon the history first. Despite the restoration of democracy after a People Power uprising in 1990, the broadcast sector remained a monopoly of the government. It was the tireless lobbying of some media pioneers like Bharat Koirala that forced the government to award the first public broadcasting license to Radio Sagarmatha in 1996. That opened the way for other stations to follow, many commercial, some community radio stations. Now there are more than 200 stations across the country, 30 in Kathmandu Valley alone. There are also networks of community stations that exchange programming and have syndicated news and current affairs.
Radio helped to mobilize the masses and explain to them why it was important to oppose the king’s move to take the country back to the days of absolute monarchy. FM radios were crucial in equating peace with democracy. For the first part of the Jana Andolan when the slogans were still “We want democracy” there wasn’t much public enthusiasm. It was when the slogans turned into “We want peace” that it galvanized the public, and this message went directly to the hinterland via radio.
What were the roles of different stakeholders in this effort?
The FM radio network was an important part of the civil society movement. Media took an activistic role because its basic freedom was threatened. Human rights organisations, pro-democracy supporters and the parliamentary parties became natural allies.
Can lessons or tools be drawn out of the experience to initiate demand-driven accountability and governance measures within or outside the country?
Demand-driven accountability can only come with awareness. And awareness
is also a pre-requisite to behaviour change. If awareness is the first
step, it can be achieved through education or media. The effect of education is longer-term, indirect and harder to measure. Media has more immediate impact, and in a country with low literacy (especially among girls and women) radio becomes an important tool.
What are some issues in scaling up (in relation to government support, resources constraints, invasion/exploitation by vested interest groups, role of civil society)?
Community radio in Nepal should no longer be called an “alternative medium” any more. It has now become a mainstream phenomenon, the government should serve as a fair regulator to prevent the distortions that have started to appear, but should keep it hands away from content.
Any observations, thoughts and analysis you may want to share on community radio or mass media in general (in Nepal or elsewhere)?
After 14 years, community radio in Nepal is encountering some coming-of-age problems: centralised and syndicated content, over-commercialisation, political ownership, trivialisation and knee-jerk coverage of politics that perpetuates the quarrel of the day. Better training, more careful regulation are needed.
How is community radio playing out in the current scenario (in terms of human rights, security issues)?
Community radio stations are still the voice of the people, they let policy-makers and governments know what the people’s priorities are, especially at the grassroots. They build accountability among local leaders, but it can only be complemented if local elections throw up better leadership. Radio has played an important part in peace and reconciliation issues, bringing out the truth to the victims of the disappeared and it highlighting the legacy of the violence on non-combatants.
Dixit elaborates his views on the above content, in his article, “A demand for independent, public interest radio,” published in Fighting Poverty: Utilizing Media in this Digital Age, where he not only talks about the important role played by community media in the democratic transition in Nepal but also the many fresh challenges and problems facing both community radio and its continuing role in underpinning democracy in the future. Following is an excerpt from his concluding remark in the article:
With hindsight it is clear that if it hadn’t been for the media multiplier, especially through networks of radio stations throughout the country, it is doubtful if the people power uprising would have picked up the momemtum it did. FM radios took the message to the district towns and community radios took it to rural areas. In that sense, radio galvanised the people as a force for peace. And it all came together on 24 April 2006 in Kathmandu, forcing the king to back down. The media helped to change the course of modern history in Nepal. For those looking for examples to demonstrate whether and in what form media shape the character and reality of democracy in the modern world, particularly in crisis states, they could do a lot worse than start with Nepal.
Photo Credit: HimalMedia