Letters   |   Nepal

CPJ urges government to restore press freedom

Dear Ambassador Shrestha:

Thank you for meeting with Joel Simon, deputy director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, and CPJ Washington, D.C., Representative Frank Smyth last week. As communicated in that meeting, CPJ is deeply alarmed at the treatment of Nepalese journalists since King Gyanendra's February 1 declaration of a state of emergency, and we urged your government to restore press freedom immediately in the interests of your nation's citizens and its international standing. We greatly appreciate your offer to convey our grave concerns to the king.

The recent assault on the Nepalese press has been immense and deeply troubling. More than two weeks after King Gyanendra cut off all communication in the country and imposed total media censorship, many of the drastic measures affecting Nepal's journalists remain in place. A program of military-enforced censorship that began on February 1 has not been lifted, and hundreds of journalists who cannot report the news face layoffs. Communications have been restored with the disturbing caveat that security forces may monitor and cut them off at will. And several journalists remain in detention, including Bishnu Nisthuri, the General Secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists.

Threats to the press leave all citizens at increased risk of abuse by security forces. Reports from Nepal indicate that the media crackdown has been most severe in rural areas, which are the primary site of conflict between the army and Maoist rebels.

CPJ is particularly concerned about the following press freedom violations:

CensorshipIndependent FM radio stations have been banned from reporting the news and are limited to broadcasting entertainment programming. Hundreds of broadcast journalists now face layoffs, and the survival of local radio in Nepal--more than 40 outlets are a primary source of news to people in districts across the country--is at stake.

The king's orders have banned all media from broadcasting or publishing negative commentary on the king's activities or indirectly or directly criticizing the security forces in any way that could "affect morale." Anyone who disobeys these orders will be placed under immediate house arrest, according to state media.

For a period of days following the February 1 declaration, security forces were stationed at the nation's major media houses. Military officers vetted news articles and editorials and imposed the king's new censorship guidelines by threat of force. Though the physical presence of military battalions in media offices in Kathmandu has diminished, media outlets remain under military surveillance and censorship. Security forces continue to enter newspaper and magazine offices at will. Local sources told CPJ that in the last week, security forces have entered the offices of weeklies Chhalphal, Deshantar, and Dristi to censor their content.

Print publications outside the capital are at an even greater risk. Because of the disruption in communications, specific information on conditions in the provinces is limited. But sources have told CPJ that many newspapers in the districts have closed completely--some under orders of security forces--or have drastically reduced their staff size.

In the midwestern city of Nepalgunj, the military rounded up newspaper editors to issue an order banning them from publishing any information on civilian deaths perpetrated by security forces. The 12-point guidelines also banned them from publishing information on political parties or quoting news about Maoists from foreign media and required them to submit publications to the government for monitoring.

The media was prohibited from reporting on a February 1 student protest in Pokhara, where police shot one student and detained and beat 58 others, many of them severely, according to Human Rights Watch.

CommunicationsMobile phone lines across the country remain down, and the king has authorized security personnel to monitor or ban the use of telephone, radio, fax, television, e-mail, or any other form of electronic media as they see fit.

CPJ has received reports that on February 14, security forces ordered Nepal Telecommunications to cut off telephone lines in eastern Nepal's Sarlahi District, isolating thousands of people and disrupting all flow of information in that area.

Detention of journalists At around 10 p.m. on February 4, security forces arrested Bishnu Nisthuri, General Secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), at his home in Kathmandu. His arrest came hours after Nisthuri had issued a statement condemning the harassment of journalists and military censorship of the press during the state of emergency. Nisthuri remains in custody at the Singha Durbar Ward Police Office.

Security forces have also targeted FNJ President Tara Nath Dahal, visiting his home and threatening his wife and children. The offices of FNJ remain under military surveillance, sources told CPJ.

Also in detention since the first days of the emergency is Khagendra Sangraula, a columnist for Kantipur daily and a strong critic of the monarchy. He is being held at the armed police headquarters at Halchowk, on the outskirts of Kathmandu.

On February 13, security forces arrested two journalists in Chitwan District for unknown reasons. We request additional information on the status of reporters Narayan Adhikari, with the state-owned Rastriya Samachar Samiti news agency, and Basanta Parajuli, of the daily Gorkhapatra.

On February 15, security forces arrested D.R. Panta, local correspondent of Kantipur publications in the district of Dadeldhura. According to news reports, he is currently being held at the district police office.

CPJ also requests additional information on the reported detentions of FNJ member Narayan Dutta Kandel, Suresh Chandra Pokhrel of Channel Nepal, and Suman Shrestha. The latter two were reportedly arrested while attending protests.

Your Excellency, your government has justified its actions by claiming that they are necessary to disrupt the Maoists' alleged communication network and to put an end to news reports that were demoralizing the population. But by dismantling Nepal's communication infrastructure and shutting down the press, you have gravely harmed both the people of Nepal and your country's international reputation. When Maoist rebels have disrupted communications and attacked the press, your government has condemned their actions. Yet officials have now taken much more sweeping action against the media.

As you well know, Nepal's economy is largely dependent on international aid and tourism. The February 1 actions have garnered universal international censure, compelling several major donor countries to recall their envoys and putting millions of dollars of development and military aid under review. In November 2004, the U.S. Congress passed a bill linking military aid to Nepal's demonstrated commitment to human rights. In May 2004, nine donors, including Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Norway, and Germany, signed a statement making development aid contingent on democratization and human rights.

According to reports received by CPJ, at least eight journalists have been arrested since the crackdown began, putting your country in the company of just a handful of other countries, including China, Eritrea, Cuba, and Burma, whose routine imprisonment of journalists puts them outside the international mainstream.

As an independent organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, CPJ calls on your government to restore full communications without security surveillance, lift media censorship, and immediately release all journalists.

Thank you for your attention to this urgent matter. We await your reply.

Sincerely,

Ann Cooper
Executive Director

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