Attacks on the Press 2002: Nepal

Political turmoil and an intensified Maoist insurgency severely strained Nepal’s young democracy and profoundly challenged the country’s independent media. In November 2001, the government, then led by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, imposed a state of emergency, introduced a sweeping anti-terrorism ordinance, and called out the army to counter the mounting threat posed by Maoist rebels. Each of these actions had serious repercussions for the press in 2002. Under the state of emergency, in effect until late August, press freedom and other civil liberties were suspended. The anti-terrorism ordinance–formally known as the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Control and Punishment) Ordinance and commonly referred to as TADO–identifies the Maoist faction of the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN-M) as a terrorist group and allows for the arrest of anyone “in contact with” or “supportive of” the rebels. More than 100 journalists were detained during 2002 under these broad provisions, which remain in force. The government also introduced reporting guidelines, banning anything “likely to create hatred against [the] Royal Nepal Army, police, and civil servants, and lower their morale and dignity.”

The crisis prompted CPJ to send a mission to Nepal from May 20 to June 6 to talk with journalists, human rights activists, and government officials to identify the major challenges facing the Nepalese press. In meetings with the prime minister and the information minister, CPJ representatives expressed concern about press freedom abuses that accompanied the government’s crackdown on the Maoist rebellion–specifically protesting the illegal detention of journalists and their alleged torture by authorities.

The drastic actions, which, according to Prime Minister Deuba, were taken to maintain Nepal’s democracy, actually made it more vulnerable. In June, Deuba, facing opposition to his plan to extend the state of emergency, abruptly dissolved Parliament and scheduled new elections for November. But in early October, when he proposed postponing the elections, citing security concerns, King Gyanendra surprised everyone by dismissing Deuba and his Cabinet and taking executive powers for himself. (Gyanendra was crowned in June 2001 after his brother King Birendra and eight other relatives were shot dead by Crown Prince Dipendra, who then killed himself.)

Nepal is supposed to be a constitutional monarchy, with the king limited to a largely ceremonial role and real power resting with the prime minister and the Parliament. But the country’s experiment with democracy is only 12 years old, and some say that recent gains could be easily overturned.

More than 7,000 people have been killed during the Maoists’ six-year insurgency, according to government figures released at the end of October. However, journalists say these numbers are almost impossible to verify independently. Since the army began counterinsurgency operations in November 2001, the government has not provided regular briefings or access to conflict areas. After the imposition of TADO, the Maoist leadership went deep underground and severed already limited contacts with most mainstream journalists. Many reporters themselves became skittish about seeking interviews with Maoist cadre for fear of arrest.

The Maoist rebels, who model their movement after Peru’s Shining Path, have declared a People’s War to topple Nepal’s constitutional monarchy. They were increasingly hostile to members of the media in 2002, mounting three alarming attacks against journalists during the year–including the murder of editor Nava Raj Sharma. Maoist rebels kidnapped Sharma, editor of a local paper in remote Kalikot District, in June. He was found dead in mid-August, his body badly mutilated. Maoists claimed responsibility for the murder, posting flyers in the area saying that Sharma was killed because he was a government spy. In separate incidents, rebels kidnapped two other journalists, both of whom worked for state-run Radio Nepal. One of them, Demling Lama, managed to escape and later described being tortured and threatened at gunpoint. The other journalist, Dhan Bahadur Rokka Magar, remained missing at year’s end.

State security forces committed the vast majority of abuses against journalists. Of the scores of journalists who have been detained since November 2001, most have no connection to the Maoist movement, and most were released after relatively short periods of detention. Journalists were targeted for various reasons–for reporting on Maoists or for expressing views considered supportive of the rebel movement, but also for reporting that had nothing to do with the insurgency. However, of the 16 journalists who remain in prison, most were working for pro-Maoist publications.

A member of the government’s Nepal Human Rights Commission told CPJ that, of the thousands of people arrested under TADO, “there are very few cases in which a charge sheet is produced.” He said that due process rights tend to be ignored, and that people “are just ‘disappeared.'”

The most notorious case of abuse was the alleged killing of journalist Krishna Sen, editor of the daily Janadisha and former editor of the weekly Janadesh, both publications often referred to as mouthpieces of the Maoist rebel movement. Sen was arrested on May 20 and was reportedly killed in police custody. The government denied responsibility for Sen’s disappearance, claiming that no security agencies had any record of having detained him. Officials also said that Sen should not be considered a journalist since they believe he is a central committee member of the CPN-M. The government, however, has never proved its allegations against him in a court of law.

The mass arrests have, not surprisingly, fostered self-censorship in the Nepalese press. Many journalists told CPJ they do not report on civilian casualties and other human rights abuses for fear of reprisal.

Despite all the pressures, at year’s end, local media still featured critical coverage of authorities, including the views of those opposed to the king’s government takeover and reporting on alleged rights abuses by the army. This is especially significant because the palace and the army, neither of which normally tolerate outside scrutiny, have traditionally been taboo subjects for the press. But with the king in charge and the army taking the lead role in curbing the insurgency, independent coverage of their activities was more crucial than ever.

At the end of October, the national English-language daily Kathmandu Post obtained a letter from King Gyanendra directing his newly appointed prime minister “to make necessary changes in the laws” to curb “yellow journalism.” The king’s order came after a local film actress committed suicide because a tabloid published her nude photograph with an article claiming that she had been a prostitute. While most media organizations condemned the story as an ethical breach, journalists also feared that the palace might use the scandal as an excuse to further restrict the press.

Date unknown

Ambika Timsina, Janadesh

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January 1

Debram Yadav, Blast Times, Jana Aastha

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January 5

Sharad K.C., Radio Nepal

Sharad, a reporter for the government-controlled Radio Nepal and local stringer for the BBC, was detained by security forces in the midwestern town of Nepalgunj. Officers picked him up at the offices of Radio Nepal and took him to nearby army barracks, where he was detained for nearly two hours, according to the Center for Human Rights and Democratic Studies, a Kathmandu-based press freedom group.

After his release, Sharad told reporters that uniformed soldiers had blindfolded him and taken him away in a van. Following the imposition of a sweeping anti-terrorism ordinance in November 2001 that criminalized any contact with or support for the Maoist rebels, security officials frequently detained and harassed journalists.

January 19

Bijay Raj Acharya, Srijanashil Prakashan

Acharya, head of Srijanashil Prakashan publishing house, was detained by police. Soon after his detention, Acharya was brought to a military camp, where his hands and feet were tied and he was repeatedly tortured with electric shocks during a two-day interrogation, according to CPJ sources in Nepal.

Police originally detained Acharya for his suspected connections with Janadeshý a weekly with close links to the rebel Maoist movement. However, soon after the journalist’s arrest, police admitted that their information was incorrect, according to the Center for Human Rights and Democratic Studies (CEHURDES) in the capital, Kathmandu. Nonetheless, Acharya remained in custody until March 19. No formal charges were ever filed against him, according to CEHURDES.

On November 28, Acharya was among some 14 journalists who filed lawsuits against the government claiming compensation for being illegally detained.

January 23

Posh Raj Poudel, Chure Sandesh
Suresh Chandra Adhikari, Chure Sandesh

Police arrested Poudel, executive editor of the newspaper Chure Sandesh, in the capital, Kathmandu, along with his colleague Adhikari, the paper’s editor-in-chief. Police initially detained them at the Hanuman Dhoka Police Detention Center in Kathmandu but later transferred them to southern Chitwan District, along the Indian border. Chure Sandesh was a pro-Maoist newspaper published from Chitwan.

On November 26, 2001, the government declared a state of emergency and issued sweeping anti-terrorism legislation that criminalized any contact with or support for Maoist rebels. Two days later, police raided the offices of Chure Sandesh, as well as the home of the weekly’s publisher, where they seized documents and copies of the paper, according to the Kathmandu-based Center for Human Rights and Democratic Studies.

Adhikari was released on November 8, but Poudel remained imprisoned at Bharatpur Jail in Chitwan at year’s end.

March 3

Gopal Budhathoki, Sanghu Weekly

Budhathoki, editor of the newspaper Sanghu Weekly, went missing while riding his motorcycle home from work in the capital, Kathmandu. Budhathoki has frequently covered alleged abuses of power by the Nepalese army, including financial irregularities in the purchase of military helicopters, according to local sources. On March 6, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba announced that the army had detained Budhathoki for publishing reports that “encouraged and raised morale of the Maoists,” according to local press accounts. The announcement came only after a flurry of inquiries from legislators and media organizations about the journalist’s status.

Budhathoki was among scores of journalists arrested after November 26, 2001, when the government introduced a sweeping anti-terrorism ordinance that criminalized any contact with or support for Maoist rebels.

Budhathoki, who is also a leading activist with the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, was held incommunicado for 23 days. In May, during a CPJ mission to Nepal, Budhathoki described the circumstances of his arrest. He said that, late on the night of March 3, he was tailed while riding home on his motorcycle, just around the corner from his office in the Bag Bazaar area of Kathmandu. A van cut him off and forced him to a stop. A group of officers in plainclothes exited the van and ordered him to come with them.

Budhathoki says that they identified themselves as army officers and told him, “Our chief is looking for you.” They covered his head with a black cloth and took him to another location. He says he was questioned repeatedly about publishing an article that criticized the army’s commander-in-chief for failing to pay proper tribute to soldiers killed in a battle with Maoist rebels. Budhathoki says that on the day he was released, March 26, an officer warned him, “Don’t write anything that will demoralize the army.”

On November 28, Budhathoki was among some 14 journalists who filed lawsuits against the government claiming compensation for being illegally detained.

March 16

Shyam Shrestha, Mulyankan

Shrestha, editor of the leftist monthly Mulyankan, was detained at the Tribhuvan International Airport in the capital, Kathmandu. He was on his way to New Delhi, India, to participate in a conference on the conflict between Maoist rebels and the Nepalese government, local sources said.

Shrestha is a well-known journalist and political activist. He was arrested along with Mahesh Maskey, a medical doctor and officer in the Intellectuals’ Solidarity Group, a Nepalese human rights organization, and Pramod Kafle, a human rights activist.

On March 17, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba confirmed that Shrestha, Maskey, and Kafle had been detained but would not give any explanation for their arrest. Military sources told local media that the three were being held in army headquarters in Kathmandu. Their families were not allowed to see them in detention. On March 27, all three men were released after an officer warned them that journalists should not criticize the army, according to an account by Shrestha.

After his release, Shrestha told the Kathmandu Post that during his detention, officers repeatedly interrogated him and accused him of supporting the Maoist rebels. “They flung every possible obscene word at me. They said that press did not have right to comment on defense and foreign policy,” he said.

In addition to his work as a journalist, Shrestha had helped mediate negotiations between the government and Maoist leaders. Those talks broke down in November 2001, when the Maoists violated a cease-fire agreement and increased violent attacks. In response, the government imposed a state of emergency and introduced a sweeping anti-terrorism ordinance that criminalized any contact with or support for the Maoist rebels. Many journalists were arrested under the ordinance’s broad provisions.

On November 28, Shrestha was among some 14 journalists who filed lawsuits against the government claiming compensation for being illegally detained.

April 5

Demling Lama, Radio Nepal, Himalaya Times

Lama, a correspondent in Sindhupalchok District for both Radio Nepal and the national Nepali-language daily Himalaya Times, was kidnapped by more than a dozen armed Maoist rebels who entered his house during the early morning, ordered him from his bed, and took him away, according to Nepalese press reports. He managed to escape from his captors two days later.

After his release, Lama described his ordeal to a local journalist. Lama said his kidnappers accused him of crimes against their “People’s War” for broadcasting news for government-controlled Radio Nepal about a group of rebels who had surrendered to authorities. The journalist’s captors later accused him of being a government spy. Lama said he was threatened with a knife and with a loaded gun, and that at one point he was taken to a remote area of the forest and beaten with a pipe. Months after his escape, Lama said he remained threatened and avoided travel outside the district headquarters.

May 6

Bhim Sapkota, Narayani Khabar Weekly, Adarsha Samaj

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May 19

Shiva Tiwari, Janadisha
Bharat Sigdel, Janadisha

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May 20

Krishna Sen, Janadisha
Atindra Neupane, Janadisha
Sangeeta Khadka, Jana Ahwan

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May 23

Tara Neupane, Sanghu

At around 3:30 p.m., plainclothes officers arrived at the Kathmandu district office of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) and took Neupane into custody. He was held overnight at the Kathmandu Valley Police Station at Ratna Park, according to the FNJ.

Neupane, a columnist for the Nepali-language weekly Sanghu, is a veteran journalist who writes mainly about economic and political affairs, said local sources. The reason for his arrest is unknown, but Nepalese officials have targeted Sanghu journalists in the past. The weekly’s editor, Gopal Budhathoki, was detained briefly in December 2001 and then for more than three weeks in March 2002.

Sanghu is a political tabloid that generally supports the policies of the mainstream Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), a legal political party. Neupane was among the more than 100 journalists who were detained under the broad provisions of an anti-terrorism ordinance introduced in November 2001 that allowed for the arrest of anyone suspected of supporting the outlawed Maoist rebels.

May 24

Rewati Sapkota, Rajdhani

Sapkota, a reporter for the national Nepali-language daily Rajdhani, was detained by police at his home at around 4:30 p.m. Just as he was preparing to leave for his evening shift at the office, plainclothes police officers came to his house and told him to come outside to meet someone. When he went outside, a uniformed police officer introduced himself as the older brother of one of Sapkota’s colleagues at Rajdhani and insisted that the reporter accompany him. Sapkota did not recognize the officer but later identified him as Subinspector Komal Manandhar of the Kamal Pokhari Police Station in the capital, Kathmandu.

Upon Manandhar’s insistence, Sapkota reluctantly went with the officer in his police van and was taken to the Kamal Pokhari station. Sapkota says that after about a half-hour, he was taken to the Mahendra Police Club, where he was blindfolded after a senior police officer admonished the junior officer, “Why haven’t you covered his eyes? You’re supposed to cover his eyes!”

Sapkota told CPJ he was then taken somewhere and seated on a couch until another officer yelled that he should be made to sit on the floor. He says he was moved to the floor and had his wrists bound with rope. Sapkota was interrogated about the stories he writes and about his sources. Officers had seized his address book and questioned him about his contacts.

The officers questioned him about suspected Maoist leaders, but they also asked him about the background of certain lawyers and journalists, including Yadu Devkota, a journalist at Spacetime Daily, and Gunaraj Luitel, a journalist at Kantipur.

Sapkota says that at one point during the interrogation, he was ordered to straighten his legs. He told CPJ that it felt as if two people were standing on his knees and beating him with wooden sticks–known locally as lathis. He says his captors caned him on the soles of his feet, thighs, and head.

He said after several hours of torture and questioning, he was taken by van to another location. When his blindfold was finally removed, he discovered he was being held at Kathmandu’s Hanuman Dhoka Police Station.

Sapkota told CPJ that he was only physically tortured on the first day, but that he was threatened during subsequent interrogations. “If you don’t tell the truth, you’ll die,” he quoted an officer as saying. After protests by the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, Sapkota was released on May 28.

On November 28, Sapkota was among some 14 journalists who filed lawsuits against the government claiming compensation for being illegally detained.

Mina Sharma Tiwari, Eikyavaddatha
Binod Tiwari, Eikyavaddatha

On May 24, security forces arrested Mina Sharma Tiwari, editor of the newspaper Eikyavaddatha, from her home in the capital, Kathmandu. According to an account of her imprisonment, which she wrote after her release more than five months later, security forces covered her head with a black cloth, forced her into a vehicle, and took her to an unknown location.

On May 28th, army personnel raided Eikyavaddatha‘s offices, seizing documents, computers, a printer, and a fax machine. They arrested Binod Tiwari, who is Mina Sharma’s nephew and the paper’s assistant editor. Authorities arrested the two journalists under the provisions of a sweeping anti-terrorism ordinance introduced in November 2001 that allowed for the arrest of anyone suspected of supporting the outlawed Maoist rebels.

Eikyavaddatha, which means solidarity, is a leftist publication that supports many of the declared aims of the rebel movement. Both Mina Sharma and Binod were reportedly tortured in custody. Mina Sharma says she was transferred several times during her detention and that she was tortured with electric shocks and threatened that she would be forced to dig a trench for her body. Binod was held at the Sorakhutte Police Station in Kathmandu but was taken repeatedly to army headquarters in Tundikhel, according to the human rights group Amnesty International. Binod was released in sometime July, and Mina Sharma was released on November 5.

June 1

Nava Raj Sharma, Kadam

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August 1

Dhan Bahadur Rokka Magar, Radio Nepal

Rokka Magar, a newsreader for the Kham Magar-language service of Radio Nepal, was abducted by Maoist rebels while traveling by bus to the town of Surkhet, where he works. Rebels intercepted the bus near Jaluki, a Maoist-controlled village near the borders of Western Rolpa and Pyuthan districts, and kidnapped several passengers, including Rokka Magar and a representative from the British charity the Gurkha Welfare Trust.

It was not clear why the Maoists targeted certain passengers, but rebels generally view journalists working for state-run Radio Nepal as government agents. Colleagues fear that Rokka Magar may therefore be particularly vulnerable to severe harassment and torture. He was still missing at year’s end.

August 4

Kishor Shrestha, Jana Aastha

Shrestha, editor of the Nepali-language weekly newspaper Jana Aastha, was briefly detained by police. CPJ believes Shrestha’s arrest was intended to silence his newspaper’s reporting on the case of Krishna Sen, a pro-Maoist editor who, according to Jana Aastha, was allegedly killed in police custody.

At around 5 p.m., eight plainclothes police officers arrived at the Jana Aastha office in the capital, Kathmandu, according to Shrestha. He said the officers did not produce an arrest warrant and then forcibly dragged him from his office when he refused to accompany them.

Superintendent of Police Ram Chandra Khanal told the national daily Kathmandu Post later that evening that Shrestha had been arrested “for the news that appeared in Jana Aastha‘s last edition” and threatened to charge him with either defamation or for violating the Public Offenses Act. The article in question alleged that Khanal was involved in illegal activities unrelated to the Sen case.

The next day, Shrestha was released without charge following protests led by the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. As a condition of his release, he was required to sign a statement apologizing for using “an objectionable adjective inadvertently” to describe Khanal, according to the Kathmandu Post.

However, Shrestha told CPJ that the threat of the defamation charge was only the pretext for his arrest. He said that during his detention, an interrogating officer warned him to stop reporting on the Krishna Sen case since Jana Aastha‘s allegations of police misconduct had “created many problems” for the police.

In a June 26 article, Jana Aastha had reported that Sen, former editor of the pro-Maoist newspapers Janadesh and Janadisha, was tortured and killed in police custody. Authorities, who had arrested Sen on May 20, accused him of being among the senior leaders of the Maoist movement and of commanding rebel operations in Kathmandu. Jana Aastha‘s account of his alleged killing, which was based on confidential sources and never independently confirmed, caused a scandal in Nepal.

November 3

Dinesh Chaudhari, Spacetime Daily

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November 12

Tikaram Rai, Aparanha

Rai, editor of the Nepali-language daily Aparanha, was arrested in the capital, Kathmandu, after his newspaper published an article accusing a senior police officer of bribery. Aparanha had recently reported that police officer Basanta Kuwar had received bribes for issuing driver’s licenses, pocketing some 16 million rupees (US$205,000), said the Agence France-Presse news agency. Kuwar said the report amounts to character assassination and filed a criminal complaint under Nepal’s Public Offense Act, according to The Associated Press news agency (AP).

Rai was detained at Kathmandu’s Hanuman Dhoka District Police Office, according to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. A police officer told the AP that the journalist could be held for up to 10 days for questioning. However, Rai was released on bail on November 14 after protests from local and international press freedom groups, including CPJ.