From offset to online
New Digital Media in Nepal
In 'IIAS Newsletter 21' (February 2000), Thomas de Bruijn made some interesting observations in his article on South Asian Internet-based media, or, as he so aptly put it, 'post-modern publishing'. Many of the features of the online publishing revolution he discusses, such as the importance of 'portals' for channelling both information and users, and the importance of reaching South Asians living abroad, have particular applicability to Nepal.
By MARK TURIN
As a form of innovative technology, one of the most intriguing features of the Internet is that it requires relatively little new infrastructure in order to function. For a country like Nepal, where lines of communication (postal system, roads, etc.) are limited and unreliable, the decentralized and low maintenance nature of the Internet is an advantage. The suitability of the WWW as a new mode of communication for Nepal has been shown by the speed at which writers, journalists, and academics have embraced electronic mail. On more than one occasion I have met senior scholars in Nepal who were surprised to find that some of their colleagues in Europe had neither Internet access nor e-mail. There are, however, obvious explanations for what on the surface appears to be a technological paradox. First, whilst European academics might have been content with a fax or a registered letter (knowing that both would arrive), in Nepal the prohibitive cost of international telephone calls together with the unreliability of the postal system left the field open for a fast, cheap, and reliable form of communication, a niche which has been filled by e-mail. Second, the obsolete and user-unfriendly computers that Western academics have battled with has made many users wary of adopting yet another new operating system. Once again, this is not the case in Nepal where the first computer many people set their eyes on is a Windows machine with a high-speed modem.
Nepal's relatively late involvement with the computer revolution, then, has had two rather unexpected advantages. First, the more recent introduction of computers to Nepal accounts for the absence of obsolete hardware in government departments and private businesses. Second, in contrast to the wariness exhibited by some Western professionals, most English-speaking, literate Nepalis have shown only enthusiasm for cheap and instant global communication as offered by the Internet.
Ownership of computers in Nepal is still, of course, limited to the urban, educated, and fairly well-off minority in the country. Apart from private ownership, however, many more people now have access to Internet technology, largely thanks to communications kiosks all over Nepal which previously provided only phone and fax facilities but have now added e-mail to their list of services. In Europe, web access and private ownership of computers go increasingly hand-in-hand (ever more people are buying home PCs and cyber cafés are largely frequented by people on the move), but this is not the case in Nepal. Students, publishers, and individuals working in the trekking and tourism industries may not be able to afford their own computers, but they can afford to make use of them. Low expense and easy access, together with free web-based e-mail services, are features of Internet communication which have encouraged urban, middle-class Nepalis to participate in previously impenetrable global networks.
One of the most web-effected areas of information dispersal in Nepal is the media. The 'revolution' and new Constitution of 1990, brought about by the actions of the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy, marked a genuine watershed in the history of Nepal, not least for the print media. Over the last decade, many daily, weekly and monthly newspapers, magazines, and journals have been established or resurrected (some were previously banned). Whilst increased literacy and greater political awareness have been prime movers in the growth of print media, the traditional obstacles of printing cost and physical distribution have not yet been overcome. Partly in response to these challenges, many newspapers have created websites in the past five years. These home pages differ in quality and breadth, ranging from cursory overviews of the publication, with excerpts of a lead story and some contact information, to well-archived, interactive sites with identical content to the printed physical copy. The potential font problem (Nepali uses a slightly modified Devanågar^) has been resolved by standardizing the fonts used in online Nepali-language HTML and by making them downloadable and free. Opinion letters and other comments can now be submitted through the home pages of the publication or by e-mail to the editors, leading to a much higher rate of feedback on articles and features.
As a direct result of these changes, the Internet rather than the national archives in Kathmandu may now be the first port of call when searching for specific information. Whilst some of the more established academic publications of Nepal do not yet have their own dedicated websites, these journals can be found in libraries all over the world. Newer publications, however, do have sites where the contents of previous volumes as well as submission guidelines are available. The real changes, however, have not been in the field of specialist journals but rather in news media. Daily updates, keyword search facilities, and good archiving mean that online information takes on a kind of 'permanence' previously not associated with newsprint. At present, most online newspapers and magazines in Nepal have back issues dating back a few years, and one would hope that these archives may soon be extended further to include electronic copies of older and unavailable issues.
The digital revolution has also had a major impact on the lives of Nepalis living abroad. As the number of expatriate Nepalis grows, so too does their social and economic importance back home. Whilst some choose to settle in their host countries, many do eventually return to Nepal after years of study or work abroad. For many expatriate Nepalis, Internet-based communication is a key element in their contact with their home country. Internet news sites, free web-based telephone services to America (such as dialpad.com) and cheap e-mail have cut down the cost and increased the frequency of communication with friends and family in Nepal. Having made good use of the new technologies during their time abroad, it comes as no surprise to learn that Western-educated, English-speaking and computer-literate Nepalis returning to Nepal have capitalized on the possibilities of Internet entrepreneurship. Whilst conventional communication technologies (telephone and television) are still state-controlled, Internet Services Providers (ISPs) have been largely left to their own devices. One direct result of this freedom has been fierce competition between the different ISPs in Nepal to secure customers and provide technical support.
As a new technology, then, the Internet seems well suited to Nepal. The past few years have seen an impressive growth in Internet use and web-based information dispersal in the country, and there is good reason to believe that the pace will only pick up in the years to come. *
SOME LINKS TO NEPALI MEDIA
Mark Turin is working on a grammar of Thangmi, a Tibeto-Burman language spoken in Nepal, and is the webmaster of the Himalayan Languages Project at Leiden University.