Blogs rise above the Nepal information coup

In the face of an information meltdown, readers turn to blogs for news from Nepal, reports Annie Besant

By Annie Besant
AsiaMedia Staff Writer

Tuesday, March 1, 2005

In the fight against the King Gyanendra's media censorship, the Internet is playing a vital and unexpected role. Bloggers are becoming Nepal's new watchdogs. In the face of strict rules restricting print, television and radio communications, Nepali journalists have begun using web logs, or blogs, to communicate their opinions and news to the outside world.

A 26-year-old male journalist in Kathmandu, who remains unnamed for security reasons, is the pioneer behind the now-popular website Radio Free Nepal (RFN). He started blogging as a concerned citizen and an irate journalist after the Feb. 1 coup, but did not fully realize the potential the Internet offered.

"[I] was reading all about blogs from Iraq and Iran, but since there was not any such situation in Nepal, I never thought I would use blog in this way," says the Radio Free Nepal blogger.

Within days of the King's takeover, a blogger who calls himself Blogdai began helping frantic Nepalis outside the nation locate their loved ones within the country. Blogdai was also a steady source of uncensored information from Kathmandu.

The royal government, no stranger to the tools of the internet, has been regularly blocking Maoist-affiliated sites since the first government coup in 2001. Dinesh Wagle, 26, co-founder of United We Blog! and a reporter with the Kantipur Daily, says the government since the coup has also blocked non-Maoist sites such as Newslookmag.com and Nepalipost.com. Blogs have, as yet, remained untouched by government censorship. Wagle says that it is unlikely blogs will be censored like news organizations: "It is easier for them to simply block the sites so that some three hundred thousand Internet users in Nepal can't have access to our sites."

Nepalese bloggers generally doubt the King's assurances that human rights will be respected and "effective democracy" and peace will be established within three years. "Media censorship here has put us into a situation which I would like to call information isolation. Journalists are losing jobs, insurgents are enthusiastic and people are deprived of their rights to information with the 18th century style kingship -- that [is] what concerned me," says the RFN blogger.

The bloggers' messages are being met with encouragement. The RFN blogger says, "Looking at the popularity of Radio Free Nepal and the amount of email I receive, I think the international world is serious about the issue. People want to know what's happening in Nepal." He adds that blogging has allowed him to reach the international community, not just those in Nepal.

When RFN ran the story of three editors who were questioned by the government for running blank opinion pages, a reader called "Yeti" had this to say: "Now this is what I think is true atrocity. I know for sure that 'clarify' is not really the reason why they were summoned, and I truly abhor that."

The founders of United We Blog! see the medium as a means of easy communication. Wagle says, "It's been easier and quick to have our say or post whatever we know about the ongoing political situation." Indeed, RFN's entries are spreading across the Internet and are being referenced by bloggers in the US and the UK.

With anonymous authors and informal sourcing, however, some in the international community worry that the information in these blogs is not credible. But this kind of information, says the journalist from RFN, has "always been subjective -- but since I am a journalist and others who write for RFN are also journalists, we all look for objectivity. I have news about Nepal with me that I haven't posted because I couldn't confirm it from anywhere. So I am not allowing rumors only in RFN. I write only after confirming the fact from at least one source." He says that questions about legitimacy are valid and he hopes to lay all doubts to rest by revealing his identity and that of his friends when it is safe to do so.

Blogging before the coup, new as it is to Nepal, was mainly a forum for writers to vent their feelings. Wagle first began blogging to express himself: "In the beginning, I didn't set any goal. It was just because I wanted to blog." Things changed, however, as the Internet became the only place where uncensored information could be published.

"After the Royal Takeover of Feb. 1 -- or after the resumption of Internet services on Feb. 8 to be specific -- we all started blogging about political situation in the country."

The RFN journalist asserts, "My political agenda is 'democracy'. Nothing more than that . . . I am not a propagandist [or] a politically-biased blogger. I am blogging for my country and I request all to think about Nepal and if they can support in any way they can for restoration of democracy in Nepal."

United We Blog! says that there are very few Internet users in Nepal. In a population of about 25 million, only about 300,000 have access to cyberspace. Most of these users are college students and youngsters who use the Internet to chat and send email. Wagle is of the belief that very few people in the country read news online and even fewer enter discussion forums, a fact likely to change in the face of Nepal's information crisis.