Attacks on the Press 2000: Nepal

ANOTHER YEAR OF POLITICAL INSTABILITY kept the Nepalese government from doing much of anything. Fortunately for local journalists, that included following through on a number of ominous proposals designed to curb press freedom.

Shortly after a new government came to power in March, led by third-time prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, it announced plans to prosecute journalists and publications associated with the underground Maoist rebel movement. Describing the measure on April 26, Information Minister Jayaprakash Prasad Gupta claimed that “the press [have] misused their freedoms” and accused some media of practicing “terrorist journalism.”

The Maoist insurgents, who model their movement after Peru’s Shining Path, have been waging a war to topple the country’s constitutional monarchy since 1996; the conflict has claimed more than 1500 lives.

Authorities have used existing state security laws to target journalists who cover rebel activities or who work for publications sympathetic to the Maoist cause. Although there were no new arrests last year, Krishna Sen, editor of the pro-Maoist weekly Janadesh, remained in jail despite a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that his arrest was illegal. Police initially detained Sen on April 20, 1999, after the paper published an interview with rebel leader Baburam Bhattarai.

In July, the government drafted the Amendment Bill on Communication Act 1991, which would require publications to seek license renewals every two years. Protesting the measure, the English-language daily Kathmandu Post said it revealed that the government’s “intent is to curb the deserving bad press it has been getting over its inept handling of the Maoist insurgency.” Other local journalists pointed out that Nepal’s Constitution expressly forbids governments to cancel a publication’s registration except in cases where national security is being undermined. A parliamentary committee later withdrew the controversial provisions, but the bill never came up for a vote.

In mid-September, the information minister again mentioned the need to curb news about “terrorism,” but this time suggested the media abide by a self-imposed code of conduct.

Plans to revamp regulations governing the broadcast and information technology industries also languished in 2000, and the government was achingly slow to process applications for private FM radio stations. Many journalists had hoped that this year would see an explosion of community radio, by far the most effective medium in a region plagued by high illiteracy and extreme poverty.

Krishna Sen, Janadesh

On February 18, police in the southeastern district of Siraha filed new charges against Sen, editor of the pro-Maoist weekly Janadesh. Sen has been imprisoned since April 19, 1999.

According to the new charge sheet, Sen was arrested at around 1:00 a.m. on February 13 for carrying illegal weapons. CPJ sources, however, said that Sen was in fact transferred secretly from Kathmandu’s Bhadragol jail to the more remote Siraha jail around February 13, and that the new charges against him were fabricated.

Police first arrested Sen in Kathmandu on April 19, 1999, and detained him under provisions of the Public Security Act that allow for preventive detention of those deemed a potential threat to domestic security and tranquility. On April 20, the police filed a charge sheet recording Sen’s arrest.

CPJ believes the arrest was prompted by that week’s edition of Janadesh, which featured an interview with Baburam Bhattarai, one of the leaders of the Maoist insurgency in Nepal. On the day Sen was arrested, police reportedly confiscated 20,000 copies of the weekly in order to prevent the interview from being widely read.

The Supreme Court ordered Sen’s release on August 10, 1999. But according to Sen’s lawyer, Yekraj Bhandari, police and district officials then conspired to keep Sen in detention by forging release papers and rearresting him on trumped-up charges.

Sen was originally held at Bhadragol jail. On February 9, prison authorities allegedly forced the journalist to sign papers certifying his release. However, he was never actually released, CPJ sources said. Instead he was moved to the Maharajgunj Police Training Centre. According to Amnesty International, the Centre has been used as a secret detention facility for people suspected of involvement with the Maoist insurgency.

Sen is now being held in Siraha jail under the Arms and Ammunitions Act.

In a March 1 letter to Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai, CPJ urged him to order Sen’s immediate release, noting that Sen had been held for more than 10 months on charges that were never proven in a court of law.

Jagdish Bhattarai, Nava Janachetana

Rather than comply with a court order that he apologize for writing an editorial about corruption in the local judiciary, Bhattarai, editor of the Nepali-language weekly Nava Janachetana (“New Public Conscience”), chose to serve a one-week sentence for contempt of court.

The sentence stemmed from an editorial, entitled “Saviors of Justice Corrupt,” that appeared in the January 11, 1999, edition of Nava Janachetana. The Palpa District Court started contempt proceedings against Bhattarai on January 16, 1999, and delivered the guilty verdict on August 12. Judge Raghu Nath Aryal sentenced Bhattarai to seven days in prison and ordered him to pay a fine of 500 rupees (US$7). The court told Bhattarai that the sentence would be waived if he published an apology within six months.

Bhattarai stood by his story and refused to publish an apology. Meanwhile, the court had already notified the journalist, who is also the Palpa District correspondent for the English-language daily Kathmandu Post and its sister paper, the Nepali-language Kantipur Daily, that he could be arrested after February 10, 2000. On March 12, Bhattarai decided to serve his sentence and turned himself in.

After his release on March 19, Bhattarai addressed a Palpa meeting called by the Nepal Journalists Federation. “I hope my jail term will further embolden journalists to use their pens against the distortions existing in our society,” he said, according to the Kathmandu Post.