A young, vibrant media

Before the arrival of democracy in 1990, no independent newspapers were published in Nepal. State media praised government policies and refused to carry critical comment or analysis. A few privately owned tabloids vaguely affiliated with political parties were tolerated, largely because their news coverage was sensationalist and often sleazy. Radio and television were entirely government run.

That all changed after 1990 when a movement to restore democracy–known in Nepal as the Jana Andolan–forced then-King Birendra to share power with political parties and civil society. Explicit guarantees of freedom of speech and freedom of the press were included in the new constitution, as was an assurance that no publication could lose its license once the government granted it. Earlier authoritarian administrations had closed newspapers at will, leaving investors and journalists bereft.

Underground newspapers emerged as legal entities immediately after the democratic struggle succeeded. More publications, commercially viable and increasingly balanced, soon followed. Kantipur, now the largest circulation Nepali-language newspaper, was founded in 1992. Himal Media, which publishes magazines and a weekly newspaper, expanded throughout the 1990s.

Independent radio was Nepal’s biggest media success story. In 1994, a group of journalists, activists and others founded Radio Sagarmatha in Kathmandu. This was known as a “community radio station” because programming was devoted to the needs and interests of the audience. Other stations, some playing music and others mixed programming, soon followed. The pattern was repeated around the country, with one station starting in a town or city, and others following in its wake. A landmark 2003 decision by the Nepal Supreme Court allowed the broadcast of news bulletins. In all, some 46 independent stations enlivened the FM band across Nepal–14 in Kathmandu alone.

Television was late in coming to Nepal, largely because of poverty and the mountainous terrain that made TV signals difficult to send and receive with conventional broadcasting equipment. The satellite and cable revolutions of the 1990s allowed viewers to tune in to a variety of foreign channels, largely Indian. By 2002, the government was ready to allow private Nepalese investment in television, and three locally based channels were established. All started broadcasting relatively free and objective news by late 2004.

In all, Nepal’s independent media employed more than 10,000 people and generated considerable revenue for investors–tens of millions of dollars by some estimates–before the royal coup. The flow of quality, independent information, especially from community radio stations in remote districts, cannot be given a dollar value. It was, in many ways, a priceless asset to those in Nepal struggling to develop the country and restore peace to the countryside.

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