Amid an explosive civil conflict between Maoist rebels and government forces, the safety of the Nepalese press hung on the fragile prospects for peace. Estimates of the death toll since the collapse of a six-month cease-fire in August 2003 vary, but local journalists say heavy fighting in 2004 killed several thousand people. According to the BBC, 10,000 have been killed since the insurgency began eight years ago.
As fighting intensified, journalists were targeted by both sides. Violence was particularly heavy in rural areas, where journalism has become so dangerous that few dare to work. Outrage at the treatment of the press prompted both the government and Maoist rebels to promise they would safeguard press freedom. But at year's end, both sides were still harassing, threatening, and attacking journalists.
In the spring, Nepal's major political parties organized mass demonstrations to protest the rule of King Gyanendra, who assumed executive powers in 2002. Defying a government ban on protests in April, students and members of the opposition took to the streets to demand political reform and an end to the stalemate between the monarch and political parties. Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa resigned in an effort to defuse the mounting crisis, and in June, the king reinstated Sher Bahadur Deuba, the prime minister he had dismissed in October 2002 on charges of "incompetence."
Conditions for the press deteriorated strikingly during the protest ban. Security forces attacked and detained scores of journalists covering the April demonstrations in the capital, Kathmandu. Days later, as many as 200 journalists were detained after organizing their own pro-democracy demonstrations. Even after the protest ban was lifted the next month, police in Butwal (about 175 miles, or 280 kilometers, southwest of the capital) beat and arrested several journalists covering a student demonstration. In each of these incidents, most journalists were released shortly afterward. However, authorities held at least one, Kathmandu-based Commander Evening Daily reporter Sukadeb Dahal, for several days.
The reinstatement of Prime Minister Deuba was widely seen as King Gyanendra's admission of error in dissolving Parliament in 2002. But the government's greatest political challenges--to hold elections and to bring the Maoist rebels to the negotiating table--remained unmet.
The rebels' weeklong blockade of Kathmandu in August, as well as a series of Maoist attacks in the fall, brought the conflict from the countryside into the capital. Still, most of the fighting between security forces and rebels occurred in rural areas, where reporters were targeted.
CPJ documented the imprisonment of several journalists in 2004 in addition to Bhai Kaji Ghimire, who has been detained since late 2003. Dhaniram Tharu, an anchor and director of local-language programs for Swargadwari FM, and K.B. Jumli, a reporter for the Nepali-language daily Nepal Samacharpatra (Nepal Newspaper), were detained for three and four months, respectively, and later released. Authorities said they detained the two to investigate possible Maoist activities; local sources said they believe the arrests were due to their reporting on the insurgency.
Local human rights groups and journalists told CPJ that Maheshwar Pahari, an editor of the now defunct weekly Rastriya Swabhiman (National Pride), was still in custody following his detention in western Nepal in January. Pahari is being held under antiterror laws that allow security forces to detain individuals without trial for suspected Maoist activities, according to local human rights groups. Local journalists told CPJ they believe that Pahari was detained in connection with his sympathetic reporting on the Maoist insurgency, as well as his use of Maoist sources.
Late in the year, security forces imprisoned two more journalists to interrogate them about possible Maoist connections after they reported on Maoist activities. Raj Kumar Budhathoki, a reporter for the weekly Sanjeevani Patra, and Sita Ram Parajuli, an editor of Shram weekly, were both held incommunicado for weeks. Parajuli told journalists that he was beaten while in custody.
In September, the brutal murder of 12 Nepalese contract workers by militants in Iraq sparked anti-Muslim riots in Kathmandu. Apparently targeting media outlets with Muslim ownership or coverage sympathetic to Muslims, crowds attacked newspaper and television offices, setting fire to vehicles on the premises, wrecking equipment, and injuring several journalists.
Responding to international and domestic pressure, the Nepalese government repeatedly stated its commitment to press freedom in 2004. But as long as armed struggle against the rebel insurgency remains a priority for the government, it is clear that press freedom will not be a major concern. Journalists are subject to the Terrorist and Destructive Activities (Control and Punishment) Ordinance, a repressive antiterror law that was renewed with additional clauses in October. Under the law, any individual who supports the Maoists is considered a terrorist and may be held in "preventive detention" without trial for renewable six-month periods.
Rural journalists remained at the greatest risk in 2004. Maoists retained control over journalists' access to entire remote regions of rural Nepal. In the summer, stepped-up attacks on journalists by Maoist rebels reached their apogee with the killing of state-run Radio Nepal reporter Dekendra Raj Thapa. Amid months of violence that included abductions, assaults, and threats against journalists reporting from Maoist strongholds, rebels abducted Thapa from the midwestern Dailekh District on June 26. On August 16, a rebel commander said they had executed Thapa five days earlier for crimes against the "people's regime."
News of Thapa's murder, followed by death threats against 10 other journalists, provoked outrage among the local press. Faced with a unified reaction from a normally fractured media, Maoist leaders issued a statement to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists calling the killing a violation of central policy. Maoist spokesman Krishna Bahadur Mahara wrote that the Communist Party of Nepal respects press freedom and would investigate attacks on journalists by its personnel.
Journalists expressed skepticism that rebel cadres would follow the rhetoric of
their leaders; rebels have not accounted for several journalists missing and feared abducted or killed by Maoists. No one has yet been held responsible for Thapa's killing, or for the 2003 slaying of Gyanendra Khadka, a journalist for the state-owned news agency Rastriya Samachar Samiti who was murdered in Nepal's eastern Sindhupalchowdk District.
Illustrating the risk to journalists from both sides of the conflict was the case of Shakti Kumar Pun, a journalist for the Nepalese-language daily Rajdhani (Capital). In mid-November, Maoists in Rukum District abducted him, accusing him of involvement in the arrests of several Maoist leaders. Local journalists said that Pun was targeted for his writing about Maoist activities. On December 12, the Nepalese army seized Pun from Maoist captivity but held him for an additional month to interrogate him.