The Web - as a plug-in for traditional media

Gaurab Raj Upadhaya
Nepal
gaurab@lahai.com

Paper for Web and Society Track at WWW10

Abstract

Internet and related technologies have the capacity to bridge the communication gap between different communities. But in an under-developed country like Nepal, technological limitations prevent much of the population from using the web. Language is a constraint as well. The populace is therefore deprived of the benefits of the web.

But at the same time, the populace has easy access to Nepali magazines. They also have access to radio - at less than US $ 1.00. These traditional media of mass communication could actually be more effective for educating people. These media are best suited for spreading the knowledge of and from the Web.

This paper attempts to identify issues on Internet and web usage in Nepal, especially concentrating on how it has effected other forms of communication. The focus is on how other forms of communications can actually make use of web and transfer the knowledge to others who otherwise do not have access to it. An interesting aspect of this exercise is educating practitioners of traditional forms of communication in using the Internet, and how best it can be done.

The paper draws from my experience as a "technology journalist", writing in Nepali, as well as English and also running a Internet radio program on the local community FM. The paper is more immediately a result of a workshop organized in December 2000. The paper starts with the general background of Information Technology (IT), Internet and media in Nepal. It then goes on identify problems in the use of IT in media and vice versa. It concludes with suggestions on how a better integration between the two parts can be achieved in Nepal, and its overall consequences for society. Instances of training fellow journalists in using the web and writing technology related articles are also included.

1. Introduction

Internet and associated technology have the capacity to bridge distances. More so in the media. Worldwide, media houses have embraced the technology, and those has proved to be productive. Traditional media forms like print, radio and television are incorporating technologies that enable them to stay ahead. Electronic media have given birth to the ideas of online communities, which were hiterto unknown.

“In the case of verbal contents electronic media have three basic implications. First, online digital copies of books can be read anywhere. Second, they introduce a new stage in the story of separating form and content. Third, they enable new levels of hypertext.”1

How this has effected Nepali media?

Nepal is economically one of the poorest countries.  Only about 40% of the adult population is literate. Access to electricity is limited to 20% of the total population, and telephone density is merely 1 telephone per 100 persons. However, despite the poverty, communication infrastructure in Nepal is mostly digital and on par with developed nations, mainly due to donor funding.  A main frame was first installed in Nepal in 1971, for the compilation of census data. During the next census in 1981, another computer was installed and the now defunct National Computer Center was established. It was during this time that the first personal computers were being brought into the country. The pioneering companies in the Information Technology sector were also established at the same time. This was only the beginning, because the private sector had overtaken by the government in this particular area.

E-mail in Nepal was first introduced around 1989 with dialup to India. But due to poor communication link, the service did not work as expected. After the coming of the democratic system in 1990, the private sector moved ahead on its own initiative. After the earlier failure, in 1993, the first commercial service provider started e-mail service with dial-up link to Australia. Mercantile Communications started the registration of the “NP” top level domain. E-mail access through dial-up was soon followed by Internet access, in 1994, which was through a single 64Kbps link to Singapore.

The interesting aspect of this development was that the government was totally oblivious of the Internet phenomenon. Only after three Internet Service Providers (ISP) were in full swing did the government hurriedly enact legislation for these service providers. In 1997, the new communication policy was announced, and direct VSAT links were allowed. Now the number of ISPs in Nepal number 12, with 14 licenses granted. The total bandwidth is around 15 Mbps.

1.1 Media

The media in Nepal was state controlled until the coming of democratic system in 1990. Not much was done to strengthen the media environment, beyond strengthening the state owned apparati: Radio Nepal, established in 1951; Nepal Television, established in 1984; and the state run daily newspapers, one in Nepali and one in English, established at the turn of the century and in the mid 1960s, respectively. While Radio Nepal claims to cover 90% of the country through its MW/SW service, other media organizations estimate national broadcast coverage to be closer to 60%. Facilities and resources are limited. For the most part, production is done in Kathmandu with a strong urban bias. The licensing of Radio Sagarmatha in 1997 was significant. Not only was it the first independent station in South Asia, but Radio Sagarmatha is arguably the regions first public broadcaster. There are 11 FM stations and 4 more are in the pipeline.

 At present, there are five broad-sheet dailies in Nepali, and 2 in English. The first and only Nepali newsmagazine “Himal Khabarpatrika” is two years old.

1.2 Statistics

Comprehensive and proper studies regarding the penetration of Information technology and media into Nepali households have not yet been undertaken. Yet, extrapolations of various available data can  be used to arrive at relevant figures. By one estimate, there are about 100,000 computers in Nepal at present. About 1,000,000 people directly or indirectly use these computing facilities. By the same estimate, the number of people using email facility is around 500,000. But, there are only about 30,000 Internet and e-mail accounts at the different Internet Service Providers (ISP). This points towards the fact, that access is shared. The number of Internet users, i.e. people browsing the Internet, stand at 150,000. Interestingly, the penetration of Internet amongst people who own a personal computer is 47%. The majority of users are concentrated in the capital.

Officially, adult literacy in Nepal is 47%, but development agencies put it closer to 40%. The penetration of newspapers is thus limited. Local media, publishing from regional centers are next to non-existent. Two national dailies, have started regional re-prints starting mid-April. Of the 11 FM stations in operation, 4 are outside the capital city. 2 are publicly owned, and are broadcast in semi-urban and rural area. Of the upcoming 4 stations, only 1 is in a rural area.  

2. Use of IT in media

As early as the popular movement in 1990, students abroad,  especially in the United States, used e-mail extensively for communications. The e-newsletter, Nepal Digest, was the first e-zine from Nepalis for the Nepalis. But access was limited. It also marked the creation of the first electronic media related to Nepal. The archives and the web site is still available at www.nepal.org.

Coming back to the traditional media, to date, media organizations are not using Information Technology in an organized way. Most publications boast of using computers, but the use is limited, in that it is used primarily for typesetting and layout. None of the publications have any digital archives. Specially in the print medium, many editors and journalists still prefer pen and paper to using the computer. This is changing with the new breed of younger generation journalists. The use of computers is increasing, albeit in most cases, it has replaced the typewriter. Most journalists and media people do not use the Internet for research. Like most Internet users in Nepal, the majority of the media community is satisfied with using e-mail as an alternative form of communication.

During  the IT and media workshop organized in December 2000, of the 25 odd participants, only 5 had adequate knowledge about computer technology. Almost all had heard about the technologies and used e-mail to some extent, but were reluctant to find out more. Lack of access was cited as the primary reason. Interestingly, the younger the reporters, the more interested they were in making use of the Internet. Most of them stayed late during the practical tutorial sessions later in the day.

Of the five participants who had adequate knowledge, all had been abroad for training or study. Three of them owned a personal computer. But they lacked knowledge of using the Internet for research. Most often, they would not venture beyond known web sites. They lacked the interest, rather then skill to use the Internet for re-search. Others even lacked simple web searching skills.

Four of these people belonged to organized media publications, or big organizations. It was thus clear that larger media houses were more open to the use of newer technology and made it available to their staff. A participant for the only public radio, a female, interestingly told the gathering that the majority of their international new reports were prepared from the Internet. The reason being they could not subscribe to the expensive wire service.

The workshop aimed at making the reporters aware of the scenario in Nepal, and at the same time teach them techniques for news research on the Internet. The event was organized by Computer Association of Nepal.

An informal survey of media houses also revealed that only Himal Media, (www.himalmag.com) had its own domain in use at the end of 2000. It had unlimited Internet facilities available for its staffers through a dedicated radio link to an ISP, and also provided e-mail on company domain to every journalist and staffer.  All of their publications have independent web sites. They have a separate web department for handling online publications.

Lately, the largest publications house, Kantipur Publications, has started using its own domain for e-mail, and also connected itself round the clock to the Internet. Although it had its online news portal (www.kantipuronline.com), use of the domains for publication wide e-mail was not available. Albeit, different pages carried different Hotmail and Yahoo addresses for article submission. They outsource their web services.

Of the remaining houses, most now have presence on the Internet, and have access to e-mail. But, their use is limited.

In the electronic media sector, an IT company has the leading news portal. www.nepalnews.com. It is the most popular online news site. Initially started to attract Nepalis residing abroad, it now has a large number of local readers. This site, apart from it own news reports, provides almost all local newspapers on its site, which makes it popular.

Clearly, the use of Internet and related technology at media houses is minimal but is gradually growing. As a newer breed of journalist joins the media, the use will grow. But the larger question of access to the technology remains. Corporate media organizations will definitely invest in the technology to remain ahead, but the smaller publications will probably be left behind. The question will then be not only of access, but about free access to all the media people.

A significant dimension of the new technology is the question of language. Many Nepali language reporters are not very comfortable with English, and cannot venture beyond typing their reports in the word-processor. The lack of internal IT infrastructure and training also compound the fear about technology. The only Media oriented IT training is being conducted by the Nepal Press Institute.

“The revolution in new media, which most persons assume is only about computers and the Internet, is not really about computers as such: it is about a re-organization of all knowledge” 1

The assumption holds true for a majority of media people. And the need is to make them understand the ways of new media, and how information technology can be included in the publication process.

3. Information technology coverage in the local media

During the second week of January every year, most media organizations, publish (or air) special information technology supplements. This coincides with the CAN Info tech, the yearly IT show held in Kathmandu. During the event, there are news reports, and lots of coverage of the event. But a look at most of the supplements reveals that they are not innovative in reporting about the technology situation in the country. Most often, the writers and the people interviewed are the same across the different supplements. The lack of creative reporting in the area indicates that the reporters are not well trained to identify issues.

In the year 2000, fewer than 10 new IT issues were reported in the mainstream media. Most of these reports were related either to telecommunications or the use of voice over Internet Protocol.  Most reporters are keen on “negative reporting” rather then “positive reporting”, and this is the case with IT issues as well.

Coverage of international computing businesses and usage has been very good. These reports are most often from wire services like AP/AFP. Most often they get a prominent place in the newspaper, because of the value put into them by desk editors. Reporters were more interested in doing scoops, rather than brining out the positive and human side of technology related issues.

Things are changing. In 1996, an engineer started Cyberpost, a monthly supplement in The Kathmandu Post. This was the first regular publication. This brought more information to the readers. It provided information from the Internet, and raised discussions about issues in IT policy, access and content development. It carried informative articles on web site designing, searching the web, demystifying the PC, hackers etc. More than a news supplement, for the first time it tried to bring Internet to the people through the print medium. Cyberpost is still the only regular IT publication in Nepal. It is now a fortnightly feature. Rajib Subba, who started the Cyberpost, now secretary general of CAN, proudly proclaims, “Cyberpost did to IT area, what the popular movement had done to the democratic movement”.

Cyberpost did a great job of promoting IT amongst the urbanites, but what about the people in rural areas? The problem of language still persists. I personally started writing articles in the Nepali language in early 1999. The first one was about Y2K and what it actually meant for Nepal. Since then I have continued writing, and written about lots of issues. Although these issues are not new, the beauty of writing in Nepali is that more people can read about it. Along with the Computer Association, we are trying to popularize the Internet amongst the media people, so that more people can benefit indirectly.

During the December workshop, the participants were asked why their coverage of IT related issues were limited. Most reporters said that they were unaware of the issues. The problems are real. Translating never-heard-of-arcane-terms, into the local language, where equivalents are not available is a tough job. On top of it, most do not understand the underlying technology, which does not permit them to translate effectively.

The problem is the same with the people at large, who do not speak English. How do you take the power of the Internet to the people? The answer now seems to be supplementing traditional media with the web.

“There is no question that in urban and rural Nepal radio is the ubiquitous media. A radio is available at as low as Rs 40.00 (less than US$ 1). With aim of providing newer means of information to the public at large, the Internet radio programme was designed to act as an interface between the users and the Internet.” 2

I did one major experiment on radio. In March, 1999, a 15 minute radio program was started which tried to bring information from the Internet to the people in a more traditional way. During the program, we would select any topic, like world heritage sites and take the listeners through out the browsing process. In between, we explained about search engines, web browsers and other technical terminology. The program proved popular, and now is broadcast 30 minutes every week. We use what we call an “open format”. Initially, the program had a fixed structure, but later, specially after January, we dissolved the structure. So, now in each program, we cover one topic only but provide more information.

The program is interactively run in Nepali, with the two hosts chatting about the technology in a very non-technical way, which has made the show an attraction.  

The program is also being produced in a form that can be sent to other public and private broadcaster around the country. These audio productions can also compiled in the form of audio magazine and be marketed in the more rural areas.

The success of these experiments, both in the print and in the audio, has shown that the public is very receptive to the technology if it is served in the proper way. People working in media organizations are now suggesting that the radio stations and media houses outside the capital be made community access centers, where the community can have shared access to the technology. Experiments towards this end have already started, and local participation has shown that it could be a success.

“Because of their wide reach, mass media can contribute immensely to public information and political culture. In a society where literacy rate is still low, it is nonetheless not only radio and TV which provide the rank and file with information and models of understanding and meaning but the print media as well. We know very well from empirical research carried out by the IIMC, each single person in a village that can read a newspaper will spread the news and the schemes of interpretation in a multi-step flow to the rest of the population - provided that the print media are such that at least one of the villagers would be able and like to read it.” 3  

4. Integrate ?

Experiences and experiments have clearly indicated that Internet technology in its current form may not be useful for the Nepali masses. Audio actually bypasses the literacy barrier to reach the person at the edge. But, how can Internet be utilized by the mass media, including print and media is a bigger question. This is not a Nepal only phenomenon.

“A fundamental shortcoming of most digital reference and digital libraries projects to date is that they still approach electronic media using the assumptions and limitations of print media. Hence they are concerned with providing digital facsimiles of printed reference materials and books. As a result they offer us digital forms of the static knowledge imposed by print, rather than offering the potentials of dynamic knowledge inherent in electronic media. By way of illustration some examples will be useful.”1

The dynamic nature of the web, and the avenues it provides for all the practitioner of media, is underutilized. So, how can media practitioners be made aware of the issues?

As the experiments have shown, people who understand the technology have to make an effort to train fellow journalist. People who have the knowledge of the technology should write informed articles so that others can take a cue. This basically means technical people with writing gifts should come forward. The media houses should be brave enough to hire people from non-humanities background to work in their technology section. On the other hand, journalists also need to specialize. Only recently journalist in Nepal have started to specialize in two areas, sports and business. With effort, technology reporting could be made a separate beat for reporters.

Radio is a sound alternative. Inviting experts on radio and talking to them is easier done, then asking the expert to write a column or an article. The layman hosts of the program can ask questions, if the experts start using difficult terms. They can be asked to explain underlying technology to people in the simplest form. Analogies can be more effectiely used. Comparing the Internet with the library and bandwidth with the water supply pipe are two examples which can be used very well on a radio show. In this case, the host or the journalist running the interaction can have minimal exposure to the technolgoy and yet be able to generate usefull knowledge through the program.

It is also essential that the public understand the technology and language should not be a barrier. Efforts should also be made by organizations like Computer Association of Nepal and the government to popularize technology by making it more easier to access. To cross the language barrier, technical efforts are definitely required, but knowledge can still be passed over from those who can access to those that cannot.

“The very existence of a myraid of new information channels, operating in real time and across all frontiers, will be a powerful influence on civilised behavious. What I am saying, in fact, is that the debate about the free flow of information which has been going on for so many years, will be soon settled - by engineers, not politicians. (Just as physicists, not generals, have now determined the nature of the war)”4

Reference:

1. Kim H. Veltman (2001), Understanding New Media Augmented Knowledge and Culture
2. Upadhaya, G.R, Raut Jitendra (2000): “Browsing Internet on Radio”, Information Technology 2000, Computer Association of Nepal, Kathmandu
3. Mayer T. (2001): “Mass Communication, Political Culture and Democracy.” The Institutionalization of Democratic Polity in Nepal. Ed. Khadga K.C. FES, Kathmandu.
4. Clarke, Arthur. (1999): 2001 - “A cyber Odyssey”. Himal South Asian, November 1999. Ed. Kanak Dixit.

Sources of Statistics

1. World Development Report 1998/ 99, 1999/ 2000, The World Bank.
2. Radio Sagarmatha - A case study of Community public radio in Nepal, Ian Pringle
3. The Ninth Plan 1997, National Planning Commission.

 

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