Attacks on the Press 2003: Nepal

There was hope for a peaceful resolution toe the political violence in Nepal on January 29, 2003, when the government and Maoist rebels signed a cease-fire agreement to halt their seven-year civil conflict. However, the deepening political crisis within the country’s constitutional monarchy and the eventual collapse of the cease-fire in August sparked a sharp increase in violence, with grave consequences for the press.

Nepal’s King Gyanendra initiated the cease-fire with Maoist rebel forces through back channels, according to international news reports, and both sides of the conflict partici-pated in three rounds of peace talks before the rebels declared an end to the cease-fire on August 27. The government refused to accept the Maoists’ main demand: the formation of an assembly to draft a new constitution that could redefine or even abolish the king’s role.

King Gyanendra, who took the throne in 2001 after his brother and eight other members of the royal family were gunned down by the crown prince in a palace massacre, is reportedly unsupportive of a reduction in the monarchy’s power. After mass protests in 1990, a new constitution was written that ended absolute monarchy in Nepal and created a multiparty democracy. Twelve governments have been formed in 13 years.

The king dismissed the government in October 2002 because of “incompetence,” which led to a standoff with Nepal’s five political parties, and he appointed as prime minister Lokendra Bahadar Chand, a member of the conservative, royalist Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). Amid protests by opposition parties and charges that the king was acting unconstitutionally, Chand resigned in May and another RPP member, Surya Bahadur Thapa, was appointed prime minister. The ensuing stalemate between the king and the political parties hampered peace efforts in 2003.

While the cease-fire lasted, it brought a degree of stability for the press in Nepal for the first time since November 2001, when the previous cease-fire was broken and attacks against journalists escalated. At that time, King Gyanendra declared a state of emergency, mobilizing the Royal Nepal Army to fight with the police under a unified command against the Maoists. Previously, only the police had been engaged in the conflict. As a result, the fighting intensified. Of the estimated 8,000 people killed during Nepal’s civil conflict, half of them have died since the army joined the fighting in 2001.

The king also suspended all civil liberties, including press freedom, through August 2002. During that time, the government detained more than 100 journalists, and Maoist rebels were responsible for kidnapping and torturing one journalist and murdering at least one other.

After the cease-fire was declared, reports of harassment of journalists decreased, even as skirmishes between security forces and the Maoists continued. However, rebel forces continued to threaten journalists whose reporting criticized the “people’s war,” particularly in rural districts. In February, CPJ documented two such cases. Local Maoist leaders confined Deepak Bahadur Thapa, a reporter for the national newspaper Nepal Samacharpatra, to his village in the western district of Accham. Thapa’s editor, Kapil Kafle, said the rebels had accused Thapa of reporting against them. On February 24, Rabin Prasad Thapalia, a journalist who contributed to the weekly newspaper Ruprekha, reported receiving death threats from the Maoists after he wrote an article profiling government security officers’ widows.

Journalists found themselves targeted by both sides after the cease-fire collapsed in August, much like the last time peace talks failed in November 2001. Government security forces detained as many as eight journalists without charge in the fall. Nepalese security forces in Kathmandu abducted one of them, Sitaram Baral, the assistant editor of the weekly Janaastha, on September 13 while he was on his way to conduct an interview. When he was released five days later, Baral alleged that he had been blindfolded and subjected to “mental and physical torture.” Local journalists told CPJ that another journalist, Subhashankar Kandel, editor of the weekly Janadharana, was reportedly taken from his home in the capital, Kathmandu, on September 9 by plainclothes security forces. He was held in army custody before being released on October 3. Kandel said that soldiers severely beat him while he was in custody.

Maoist rebel forces also terrorized journalists in the fall of 2003. On September 7, a group of suspected Maoist rebels in Nepal’s eastern Sindhupalchowk District brutally murdered Gyanendra Khadka, a journalist with the government news agency Rastriya Samachar Samiti (RSS). According to RSS, the group took Khadka from a school where he taught part-time and led him to a nearby field, where they tied his hands to a pole and slit his throat. Gyanendra’s murder alarmed and outraged Nepalese journalists, and more than 100 defied a government ban on public gatherings to protest the killing. According to news reports, at least 40 journalists were arrested for breaking the ban, which had been imposed in the wake of the cease-fire breakdown, but they were released after a few hours.

Local journalists told CPJ that Gyanendra’s murder, detentions of journalists in Kathmandu and around the country, and torture allegations have had a chilling effect on the media in Nepal, spreading fear and self-censorship. While some publications have been more daring in their coverage in 2003, criticizing the army for human rights violations and reporting on atrocities committed by Maoist rebels, other newspapers have been cowed by threats in retaliation for their articles. Rajendra Dahl, editor of the Nepali-language bimonthly Himal Khabarpatrika, told CPJ that he started receiving threatening phone calls after he ran an issue in October reviewing the king’s performance on the throne in 2003. Dahl said his investors have also received threats and pressure to stop critical reporting about the king.