During a press conference in Kathmandu at the end of a weeklong fact-finding mission, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper urged the immediate release of all imprisoned journalists and an immediate halt to a series of actions taken under the emergency order that have stifled or silenced independent reporting by print and broadcast media.
"The government's crackdown, initiated at local and national levels across Nepal, is the most devastating blow to the country's vibrant private media since democracy began here in 1990," Cooper told the press conference.
Cooper called the growth of independent media since 1990 one of the real success stories of Nepal's young democracy. "Private print and broadcast media have developed into Nepal's main forum for responsible, constructive public debate," said Cooper. "But now the authorities seem determined to close down that forum and force a return to the days when news and information came only from tightly restricted state media. That would be a huge loss for the Nepali public and a great setback for democracy."
Cooper said CPJ research showed that government censorship, threats, and harassment now set sharp limits on what print media are allowed to report on vital national issues, in particular the government's decade-long conflict with Maoist insurgents. In addition, the government's total ban on news reporting by Nepal's 46 private FM radio stations, imposed on February 1, has deprived the country of a crucial forum for news and public discussion, particularly in rural areas.
In addition to Cooper, the CPJ fact-finding mission includes Daniel Lak, former BBC reporter in Nepal. Cooper and Lak met with a wide range of editors, reporters, and photographers who work for print and broadcast media in Kathmandu. They also spoke with stringers who report for national media in rural areas, and they traveled to Nepalgunj to discuss press freedom conditions with journalists there. The CPJ delegation has requested meetings with Minister for Information and Communications Tanka Dhakal and Army Brigadier General Dipak Gurung. A request has also been submitted for an audience with King Gyanendra.
Among the mission's key findings, which will be described in greater detail in a report to be written by Lak for CPJ this month, were:
- The government's media crackdown began with the pre-planned deployment of armed soldiers and military censors to private media offices all over the country as the king's emergency proclamation was still being broadcast on the morning of February 1. While soldiers and censors have withdrawn, the dramatic February 1 deployment and subsequent official restrictions on media have created a climate of fear and self-censorship among Nepalese journalists. As a result, independent news and information available to the public is greatly reduced; in fact, the only locally broadcast news now available to the public is controlled by the state. In some areas of the country, clandestine and illegal Maoist-run FM radio stations are now the only alternative.
- In the two and a half months since the proclamation, the government has arrested dozens of members of the media. While some have been released after a few days in detention, the arrests continue, and the Federation of Nepalese Journalists reported at least 10 journalists were in prison as of April 11.
- Other repressive tactics reported by journalists—particularly those working outside Kathmandu—include frequent warnings from government or military officials. In some cases, journalists who have continued to report independently on the government's conflict with Maoists have been accused by officials of being "Maoist sympathizers." In other cases, the warnings come with a threat. For example, one Kathmandu editor reported that an official told him the editor could be "disappeared" for several hours if his paper did not comply with new emergency restrictions. A reporter from a district outside Kathmandu said a local Army sergeant warned him: "We are back to the old days....we can do anything to you."
- Journalists for state and private media, particularly in rural areas, remain at risk of violent attack from both Maoist and Nepalese government forces. Earlier this month, the editor and publisher of Dharan Today newspaper died of bullet wounds after unidentified gunmen attacked him in his office. Last year, Maoist rebels claimed responsibility for killing Dekendra Raj Thapa, a journalist for state-run Radio Nepal in Dailekh District. At the time, Maoists told Thapa's family that they intended to kill 10 other journalists in neighboring districts.
- The government's restrictions—including its decision last week to halt government advertising in private media—have led to circulation and advertising declines, putting sharp economic pressures on print media. FM radio stations, now forbidden to run any news programming, have been particularly hard hit. According to the FNJ at least 1,000 journalists are unemployed as a result of the post-February 1 restrictions.
Based on its findings, CPJ calls on Nepalese authorities to release all journalists currently imprisoned and to stop detaining journalists for doing their job of reporting news. CPJ also calls for the repeal of all restrictive orders implemented since February 1, including the ban on news reporting by FM radio stations and restrictions on reporting about events in the government's conflict with Maoists. Additionally, CPJ urges the government to reverse its decision to halt advertising in private media.