Journalists in Nepal are generally free to report without government interference–unless they choose to cover the country’s four-year-old Maoist insurgency, the most serious crisis facing the state. In the government’s zeal to put down the guerrilla movement, authorities have targeted journalists who report on rebel activities, or who work for publications seen as sympathetic to the Maoist cause. These journalists are typically accused of having links with the insurgents, and are often subject to harassment, interrogation, and sometimes prolonged detention by authorities.
The Maoist guerrillas of Nepal model their movement after Peru’s Shining Path. They aim to overthrow the country’s constitutional monarchy and establish a “people’s republic.” Their strength is greatest in the impoverished northwest and northeast of the country, where large numbers of peasants have been exploited by feudal landlords and corrupt politicians. So far, the insurgency has claimed the lives of more than a thousand people.
In January, police raided the offices of two weekly newspapers considered supportive of the Maoist movement, seizing copies of the papers and arresting four journalists. One of the journalists was released without charge after spending three days in detention. The other three were all eventually freed on the order of the Supreme Court, which ruled that police did not have sufficient evidence to arrest them under the Preventive Detention Act. Under the Nepalese Constitution, “No person shall be held under preventive detention unless there is a sufficient ground of existence of an immediate threat to the sovereignty, integrity or law and order situation of the Kingdom of Nepal.”
On April 20, police arrested Krishna Sen, editor of Janadesh, after the paper featured an interview with Baburam Bhattarai, one of the top leaders of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency. Police reportedly confiscated 20,000 copies of Janadesh in order to prevent the interview from being widely read. At year’s end, Sen was still in prison awaiting trial.
When Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai (no relation to the rebel leader) took office in May, he said that quelling the Maoist movement would be his government’s top priority. Although Bhattarai is a former newspaper editor and leader of Nepal’s pro-democracy movement, he nevertheless seemed willing to clamp down on the press in pursuit of his anti-communist objective. At the end of November, the German news agency Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) reported that the government was “preparing to crack down on some unfriendly media” for their reporting on the Maoist insurgency and on the political infighting between Congress Party leaders. Sources told DPA that the administration was “devising ways under the 1992 Freedom of Expression and Publication Act to put a temporary stop to some pro-Maoist papers.”
Janadesh, Mahima, and Jana Aawan were reportedly among the targets, as was the popular, privately-owned radio station Kantipur FM. Radio is the only medium in Nepal that can surmount the barriers posed by high illiteracy, extreme poverty, and geographic isolation. The nonprofit, community-based Radio Sagarmatha and Kantipur FM are both groundbreaking stations, providing independent news and public affairs programming. Technically, however, radio stations are not allowed to produce their own news programming. Until the broadcast licensing system is modified, these stations are vulnerable to government retaliation for unfavorable coverage.
Shakti Lamsal, Janadesh IMPRISONED
Dhana Bahadur Magar, Janadesh IMPRISONED
Rewati Sapkota, Mahima IMPRISONED
Ashok Subedi, Himalaya Times IMPRISONED
Police raided the offices of the weeklies Janadesh and Mahima, newspapers generally regarded as sympathetic to the “people’s war” initiated by the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal which is seeking to overthrow the constitutional monarchy. Police apparently conducted the raids in response to a story that had run in that morning’s edition of Janadesh, about an attack by Maoist insurgents on a police post in the hills outside Kathmandu. This was the first time the insurgents had struck so close to the capital. Janadesh published the report alongside photos of two police officers killed by the rebels, who were also pictured preparing to set fire to the bodies.
The police seized lists identifying the weeklies’ correspondents, copies of the papers, and computers. They also arrested about a dozen people, including Lamsal, a consulting editor with Janadesh; Magar, the paper’s office manager; Sapkota, editor of Mahima; and Subedi, a free-lance reporter for the Himalaya Times.
Police did not produce warrants for any of these actions. CPJ’s sources reported that the journalists were being held under the Preventive Detention Act, which gives authorities broad license to detain people suspected of endangering national security. A week after the journalists’ arrest, police charged Lamsal, Magar, and Sapkota with treason, even though lawyers in Nepal say preventive detention cannot be used in tandem with a separate charge.
Subedi was released without charge after spending three days in police custody, Lamsal and Sapkota were released by court order on February 5, and Magar was ordered released on February 11. In all the cases, Nepal’s Supreme Court ruled that police did not have sufficient cause to arrest them under the Preventive Detention Act. Under Nepal’s Constitution, “No person shall be held under preventive detention unless there is a sufficient ground of existence of an immediate threat to the sovereignty, integrity or law and order situation of the Kingdom of Nepal.”
CPJ sent a letter of inquiry to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on January 21, urging him to look into the circumstances of the journalists’ detention and to determine whether police acted improperly in conducting the January 5 raids.
Krishna Sen, Janadesh IMPRISONED
Police arrested Sen, editor of the Nepali-language weekly Janadesh, and seized thousands of copies of his newspaper.
According to CPJ’s sources, Sen was arrested in connection with Janadesh‘s latest issue, which featured an interview with Baburam Bhattarai, one of the leaders of Nepal’s Maoist insurgency. Police reportedly confiscated 20,000 copies of that edition of Janadesh in order to prevent the interview from being widely read.
While Janadesh is considered sympathetic to the Maoist cause, journalists in Nepal told CPJ that it is also a vital source of public information about the guerrilla movement. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists protested Sen’s imprisonment.
In an April 21 protest letter to Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala, CPJ noted that according to Nepal’s constitution, “No person who is arrested shall be detained in custody without being informed … of the grounds for such arrest” and that “No news item, article or any other reading material shall be censored.” CPJ asked that Sen be either released immediately or given a prompt, fair, and open trial.
Sen was still in custody at the end of December, despite a Supreme Court ruling that his arrest was illegal under the constitution’s habeas corpus guarantees. Due to the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, Sen’s health deteriorated so badly that he had to be hospitalized at year’s end, according to CPJ’s sources.
CPJ sent a letter to Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai on January 17, 2000, urging Sen’s immediate release.