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BRIDGING THE COMMUNICATION

DIVIDE: INFORMATION IN THE HANDS


OF THE PEOPLE
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By BHARAT KOIRALA
2002 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for
Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts
Presented at the 44th Ramon Magsaysay Awards Lecture Series
28 August, 2002, Manila, Philippines

The technological revolution in communication has placed in the hands


of man a powerful tool for mass information, mass education and mass
motivation. The spread of mass media has been among the most powerful
forces for social change in the developing countries. The media have
broadened narrow horizons, accelerated the pace of transformation and
created a climate of readiness for development. There are numerous
instances of how the various media of communication have played
important roles in social and economic development of many countries.
With thousands of radio stations transmitting to almost every home and
television reaching large masses of urban population and rising literacy
bringing in its wake growing newspaper readership the developing world's
electronic and printed media have the potential to reach and inform vast
majority of the people in most countries.
However, this great power of the media have been used largely as tools
for entertainment and propaganda and their potential in stimulating
development remain large unrealised in most countries. It is charged that
development and communications are out of gear. While on the one hand
we have media used without a development purpose, on the other, we have
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development actions without the media.


This has perpetuated a communication divide. While the cities continue
to enjoy the benefits of communication, the vast majority of the people
living in the rural areas have no access to modern communication media.
Without communication there cannot be participation, and without
participation there cannot be real democracy or development.
Nepal's Case
In Nepal the first newspaper was published in 1901 A.D. by the autocratic
Rana family which ruled the country for 104 years. The newspaper was
meant mainly for the family and its government, and so it remained the
only newspaper until the family was overthrown in a popular uprising in
1951. It was after 1951 that several private newspapers were established
to reflect the opinions of the new political parties. But again, the King
took over power in 1960 and for the next 30 years up to 1990 Nepal had
a press that served the interest of the rulers, and those that dared to oppose
the King and his government were either jailed or their papers closed
down. It is only after the restoration of democracy in 1990 that the
Nepalese press became independent and vibrant.
However, in spite of the new vigor and dynamism of the press, the
majority of the people living in the rural areas remained unaffected by the
print medium. The newspapers were published in the cities, over fifty
percent in the capital, and were circulated within the limits of these cities.
The newspapers were found to be: urban based, with low circulation, too
politicized, full of sensationalism, highly polarized and too elitist in
nature. The print medium, thus, largely failed to reach and influence the
majority of the people living in the rural areas. Coming out of the urban
centers and published by educated individuals, the newspapers were by
and large not meant for the vast majority of the people since the language
used was beyond the comprehension of the people and the issues they
covered were largely of urban interest. Since publishers did not expect the
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average Nepali to buy a newspaper they had their eye on the urban elite
as their readers.
Wall Newspaper
It was here that we came in with new ideas and concepts to provide better
access to the rural population. The first of these was the publication of the
wall newspaper. The purpose of the wall newspaper was to provide the
rural literates reading material on social and economic development in the
form of inspiring success stories and other useful information. Printed in
large, bold type the newspapers were expected to provide information on
agriculture, health and hygiene, education, family planning, child care, reforestation and other subjects of local interest in simple and attractive
style with the use of pictures and graphics.
The first of these wall newspaper was called Gaon Ghar (village home)
and was the combined effort of Nepal Press Institute, the Agriculture
Development Bank and UNICEF. The first provided the editorial support,
the second its administration and distribution and the third the financial
resources. The newspaper was very attractive, contained first hand reports
of success stories, and the stories were written in simplest Nepali which
could be read and understood by neo-literates. Its success led to the
publication of many other wall newspapers.
At the moment there are hundreds of wall newspapers of all shades and
colors. Some are small, others large, some are printed on offset presses,
some are produced completely by hand by copiously writing out the
stories and drawing the pictures. There are wall newspapers on the
environment, on forestry and on community medicine. There are cities
where children are putting out their wall newspapers. Ninth and Tenth
grade students are given two-week training in journalism and declared
child journalists. They then divide themselves into groups and under the
supervision of a teacher produce their wall newspaper every month. These
wall newspapers have dramatically increased the flow of development
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information within many village communities. There are now wall


newspapers in neighboring countries like India and Pakistan developed on
the Nepalese model.
As offshoots of the wall newspapers there are now in Nepal other types of
newspapers which are produced by rural communities. There are several
village newspapers which are produced in small towns or villages that
serve local communities. These are examples of a process that has been
started, and hopefully will continue, to decentralize the establishment and
operation of the media. A newspaper that comes out of Papa District,
Deuralee, is now distributed in over 30 districts of the country and is
regarded as a model for rural communities for the material they print, the
language they use and the confidence they create among the rural
population. Housewives, teachers, students and any educated members of
the community function as the "barefoot journalists" to report for the
newspaper.
In support of these efforts the institutions which supported the
development of community media started feature services with the
intention of providing small newspapers with feature articles that dealt
with various issues of development. Nepal Press Institute which started
the first feature service in the late 1980s set the tone for the publication
and distribution of other development features. Now, a number of
organizations publish such features for distribution to newspapers and
electronic media. These help media organizations to find well-written
articles on different issues of interest to the masses. This has considerably
changed the face journalism in Nepal by reducing the sensational
character of the media with a more balanced coverage.
Radio
More recently, we have been concentrating our efforts in promoting radio
in Nepal. The reasons are obvious. The country's average literacy is about
45%. Poverty being rampant, it is beyond the capacity of the majority of
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Nepalese to buy newspapers. Distribution of newspapers is difficult in a


mountainous country like Nepal where transport and communication
infrastructures are not developed. The society is slowly emerging from an
oral culture that makes reading a rare phenomenon. All these together
limit the role of the print medium as a vehicle of change in a society that
is predominantly poor, illiterate and with inadequate infrastructures.
Similar is the case with Television which came to Nepal in December
1985. In these 17 years, Nepal Television has been able to slowly expand
its coverage from just the Kathmandu Valley to about 28 per cent of the
country, but mostly in the southern, more accessible parts of the country.
Much of the mountainous region as well as the more inaccessible far
western districts are still unaffected by the development of NTV's
terrestrial network. Nepal Television recently started using satellite
broadcasting so that its programs can be accessible to the whole country.
But the reality, again, is that television sets are expensive, and presently
only 15 percent of the people have electricity. It will be a long time before
this situation changes significantly.
It is for these reasons that radio stands out as the most appropriate
medium for a country like Nepal. It transcends literacy. Its signals can
be accessible to most people with appropriate receivers. It can reach out
to people living in remote, far flung areas. It can broadcast in a language
of their choice and talk about things that they care to hear about. It is the
most affordable and simplest technology available for public
information and communication.
Inexpensive radio receivers are being manufactured. In addition to
battery-operated radios, there are now models of FM receivers that
operate on solar power and ones that work by merely winding them like
table clocks.

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Private Radio Stations


For those of us are involved in the promotion of the alternative or small
media, the formation by the government in 1992 of a task force to
recommend a new communication policy suited to the changed political
situation in the country was an important event. Among other things the
task force recommended that licenses be issued to establish broadcasting
stations in the private sector on the FM Band. The new constitution
promulgated in November 1991 guaranteed full freedom of expression
and the rights of the people to demand information on issues of public
importance.
When the National Communication Act opened the way for private
broadcasting we were able to form a consortium of four well-known
media organizations to apply for a license. But a license was not granted
on the ground that rules and regulations for issuing licenses had yet to be
worked out. Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists and the other
partners, Nepal Press Institute, Himal Association and Worldview Nepal,
continued its long struggle and intense lobbying for a license while at the
same time making necessary preparations for establishing a station. This
included a series of training programs.
Even before the formal license was received Radio Sagarmatha's studio
and its 500 watt transmitter were installed and its antenna erected in 1996.
A subsequent test transmission was branded "illegal and unauthorized" by
the government. There were threats of seizure of the station and
confiscation of its transmitter.
All this is history now. Radio Sagarmatha has been on the air daily with
regular broadcasts for five years. Its innovative combination of
educational information and healthy entertainment programs is already
winning the hearts of many listeners.

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Its soft melodious music, chats, radio features, opinion pieces, and
discussions on such vital issues as pollution, HIV/AIDS and human rights
are all appreciated by a growing listenership in Kathmandu and its
suburbs.
Radio Sagarmatha has created a lot of interest in other countries of South
Asia also. At present Nepal is the only country in the region to allow
private broadcasting. In countries where FM radio stations mean just
music and entertainment, Radio Sagarmatha stands out as a viable model
for public service broadcasting.
What is encouraging is that Radio Sagarmatha has paved the way for the
establishment of other community radio stations. There are now five that
can be called truly community stations and all of them have become selfsupporting. What we do is to provide them support in training, upgrading
of equipment and creating a network for exchanging programs and
information. There is now the vision of a network of community radio
stations scattered throughout Nepal beaming programs to educate and
entertain their communities. With the help of modern information and
communication technologies it may be possible to connect them into a
functioning network, sharing programs and ideas on a regular basis.
Other Innovations
Something we have been experimenting with and getting good results
from is the audio tower. This is a simple communication system
comprising an amplifier with a microphone and a number of loudspeakers
placed atop trees, tall buildings, hilltops or temples. From a small room
or a shed, young people send out news, music, public announcements and
entertainment for villagers scattered in clusters.

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There are now audio towers run by youth and some by women. The audio
tower is considered the first step in operating a radio station. By the time
the community feels they are capable of handling a good audio tower
system, they can operate a small community radio station. We have
provision for training the operators of audio towers.
Good Journalism
The success of the new emerging radio stations has been due to the
practice of good journalism that is being promoted in the country. At the
forefront of this effort to train young journalists has been Nepal Press
Institute which was established in 1984. In addition to a regular one-year
diploma course, the Institute conducts workshops, seminars and shortterm training programs throughout the year and in many parts of the
country. Started as a very small institute to meet the growing needs of an
expanding media, it has grown considerably over the years. It now has
regional resource centers in the eastern and western parts of the country.
The Institute's achievements include a large pool of trained journalists that
man much of Nepal's communication media: print, radio and television.
It has successfully pioneered many innovative communication programs
and created a lasting interest among the young journalists to serve rural
communities. Young reporters are encouraged to use the Institute's rural
reporting fellowships to write about the Nepalese villages.
The Institute has also been instrumental in promoting new technology.
Whereas ten years ago there was no modern offset press in the districts,
now more newspapers in the districts are printed on offset machines than
in Kathmandu. The papers have become more attractive, better written
and edited and more saleable as media products. The Institute's desk-top
publishing courses are very popular in small towns and villages.

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One concept that Nepal Press Institute has been promoting is development
journalism, a journalism that makes ordinary people and their work-a-day
life as the focus of attention. Nepal today stands out as a country that has
made significant achievement in promoting this kind of journalism. The
process was started in the 1970s when the concept had just begun to
emerge in Asia. Whereas 15 years ago the newspaper content dealt
overwhelming with politics and space devoted to development was
negligible, today there is much more development news in the Nepalese
media.
However, the challenges are immense. There is still very little flow of
information between the cities and the villages. This is glaringly reflected
in the newspapers, radio or television. There is a need for massive
investment in the community media so that the success registered in some
areas can be replicated in others. The government's attitude towards
community media is negative. Instead of promoting community media,
the government has refused to grant more licenses to community radio
stations.
There are over 25 applications lying with the government. Donor support
to the media sector is lukewarm, to community media it is worse.
What We Need To Do
I have been journalism for 35 years, first as a reporter, then as an editor
and finally as a manager. The more I work in communication, the more I
have come to realize that without communication, social and economic
development is not possible. Nor can a democracy function, unless there
is a free flow of information between individuals, communities and
various sectors of society. Anyone that seeks to work in the area of social
reform must take into cognizance this paramount role of communication.

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The revolution in communication at the grassroots which I spoke about


has gone largely unnoticed either by the government, the nongovernmental organizations or the private sector. The pace of
development, no doubt, is slow and painstaking but to the discerning there
is definite and visible change.
Something that has become fully evident from these small grassroots
exercises is that if communities are given the responsibility to handle their
own communication there is immediate impact. We have discovered that
communication that is of the people, by the people and for the people is
more durable, more sustainable and more effective than communication
managed by large corporate bodies or the government. It has been proven
that rural communities can handle their own information and use it
effectively to improve their lives.
The on-going effort to inspire and empower people to create positive
change in society are visible in most developing societies. But such efforts
need more energy, more dedicated and selfless workers, especially from
the younger generation. The time has come for young people in every
society to come forward to see that people living in the more deprived
conditions are able to raise their voices and be heard, that they are able to
exercise their rights and are able to understand that contributing to society
can benefit every member of that society.
Having been in the field of communication for so long I feel that the
younger generation of communicators must come forward and take up the
challenge of giving voice to voiceless, of involving the masses of people
including women and children in a communication revolution that makes
people the focal point in any form of communication and makes them
capable of handling their own communication.

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