Banned from the air, Nepal news radio hits streets

By Gopal Sharma

KATHMANDU, June 21 (Reuters) - Banned from broadcasting news since February's royal coup, Nepali radio reporters have found a new way to get their bulletins out: loudspeaker.

Every evening, about 300 people gather on a roadside in Biratnagar, 500 km (310 miles) east of Kathmandu to listen to Keshav Bhattarai read out the news from an open air studio on the roof of a narrow, three-storeyed building.

As well as spreading the news, the service stands for a free media, Bhattarai tells his audience, a motley collection of politicians, teachers, students, traders and anyone who just happens to be passing.

Nepal's dozens of independent FM stations -- wildly popular as the only alternative on the air to state radio's staid and vetted bulletins -- were banned from broadcasting news when King Gyanendra fired the government and imposed strict censorship on Feb. 1.

Some restrictions have been eased, but the FM stations that reach most of the 26 million people in an impoverished nation where a third of district capitals don't have a road link to the outside world, still cannot broadcast even censored news.

For Nepalis starved for news, the 15-minute roadside bulletins offer everything from news about the scarcity of fish in the market to the country's Maoist rebellion and its political crisis to the troubles in Iraq.

"It is like a normal radio news bulletin where listeners get information about major national and international events," said Shiva Bahadur Karki of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists which organises the streetside broadcasts.

"We will continue this until full press freedom is restored. We'll not give up."

The federation plans similar broadcasts around the country, including in Kathmandu. So far, police have not stepped in, treating the daily service as a public meeting, which is allowed, rather than a news broadcast, which is not.

Nepal's journalists are also sidestepping censorship with Weblogs, or blogs, but they have limited reach in a country with few computers and Internet cafes.

Gyanendra said he was force to take power and restrict some freedoms to crush a nine-year Maoist revolt which has killed 12,000 people and which squabbling political parties have been unable to put down.


Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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