King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev seized direct power on February 1, dealing an unprecedented blow to press freedom. He cut all telephone lines, blocked Internet service, and sent the army to major media outlets to censor the news line by line. Hundreds of political leaders, civil activists, and journalists were detained. The king dismissed his multiparty government and declared a state of emergency, which lasted three months.
Negative reporting or commentary about the king and his royal coup were banned. The Ministry of Information and Communication (MOIC) ordered journalists to vet with security forces all reporting on the conflict between the government and Maoist rebels, who have been fighting since 1996 to overthrow the monarchy. Most devastating of all was a ban on news on the country’s more than 40 private FM radio stations, a primary source of information for many Nepalese who are illiterate or do not have access to print or TV news. Up to 2,000 radio journalists faced unemployment, and only radio stations run by the state or by Maoist rebels continued broadcasting news.
While some of these restrictions were temporary, others were not. A draconian media ordinance issued in October codified much of the king’s censorship as law, making a return to democracy under the monarch appear increasingly unlikely.
Journalists outside the Kathmandu Valley were hardest hit. Long before Gyanendra assumed absolute control in February, reporting had been dangerous for rural journalists, especially those in the districts affected by fighting between rebels and security forces. Both sides routinely targeted journalists with threats, physical attack, and prolonged, often brutal detention. After the state of emergency was declared, local officials took liberties in interpreting the bans on reporting, and rural journalists often faced the greatest restrictions. Some newspapers stopped publishing entirely. Reporters paid by the story were not compensated when their work was censored. Journalists arrested far from the capital did not have immediate access to local and international media or to human rights organizations that could advocate for their release.
Some rural journalists accused rebels of imposing their views on coverage in the same way as the king. Maoists continued to abduct journalists in retaliation for negative reporting. In May, rebels abducted Som Sharma, a reporter for the weekly newspaper Aankha, from his home in the eastern district of Ilam. He was held for nearly two months. Journalist Bikram Giri was kidnapped by Maoists in far western Darchula district and held for roughly a week. Rebels also bombed rural telecommunications and television towers.
A frightening development in 2005 was the emergence of anti-rebel militias trained by the army. In March, a reporter for the Kathmandu-based Nepali-language magazine Himal Khabarpatrika disappeared while reporting on anti-rebel violence in the district of Kapilbastu. Encouraged by the government, mobs there had displaced thousands by razing houses and killing suspected Maoists. Reporter J.B. Pun Magar called his editor to say that he had been abducted by rebels. But when he was released three days later, he told colleagues that he suspected his kidnappers were pro-government vigilantes.
As violence in rural Nepal continued unabated, it was journalists in Kathmandu who were best positioned to challenge the king’s curtailment of press freedom. Protest, muted at first, grew as reporters and editors around the country were summoned and interrogated by civil and military personnel for violations of the reporting bans. In the capital, journalists soon found ways to circumvent restrictions. The Internet was a vital way of transmitting information abroad, and sales of shortwave radios soared as citizens tuned in to the BBC Nepali service. During the first days of the state of emergency, editorials obliquely protested the king’s move. Newspaper copy cut by military censors appeared as blank spaces until these spaces, too, were banned. The king allowed English-language and online media greater freedom to criticize the government, perhaps to give the impression to the international community that reports of a crackdown were exaggerated. But within weeks, Nepali-language publications, including Kantipur Group newspapers and some weeklies, had begun resisting the government’s efforts at censorship.
International censure of the king’s dismissal of the multiparty government was swift and strong. Gyanendra responded to the criticism by assuring foreign allies and donors that the state of emergency would be lifted within 100 days. Technically, he kept his promise, and rescinded the order that had given security forces sweeping authority. But the king was silent on the status of the press restrictions, creating an environment of uncertainty that kept journalists on guard. In June, reports that he planned to pass a new ordinance amending the media law heightened fears that emergency restrictions would become permanent.
Journalists stepped up demonstrations demanding the restoration of a free press and the release of imprisoned colleagues. In Kathmandu, marches spearheaded by the Federation of Nepalese Journalists and the Save Independent Radio Movement entered areas of the capital where protests were restricted, and many of the marchers were arrested.
Supporters of the Nepalese press, including CPJ, kept a steady spotlight on the conditions confronting journalists. CPJ representatives made three research and advocacy missions to Nepal in 2005. In April, CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper and BBC reporter Daniel Lak met with journalists in Kathmandu and the city of Nepalgunj in midwestern Nepal to report on threats and harassment, the sharp restrictions placed on print publications, and the elimination of radio news. In July, CPJ Asia consultant Shawn Crispin traveled to Nepal with delegates from nine international organizations to meet with representatives of the government, army, civil society, and media to discuss ongoing censorship. And in late October, Lak returned to Nepal as a CPJ representative to meet with an imprisoned journalist and report on a Supreme Court battle that had taken center stage in the fight for press freedom.
Gyanendra left the press with few options for challenging his edicts. The ousted political parties were powerless, the cabinet did the king’s bidding, and the army remained loyal. Journalists appealed to the Supreme Court to uphold the shreds of a constitution that had enshrined democracy in Nepal just 15 years earlier.
Several legal challenges to the injunction against FM radio news had some positive effect. In May, the director of a banned radio production company, Communication Corner, filed a challenge with the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of the company, which continued producing programs. In a separate case in August, the Supreme Court stayed a government order to shut down Nepal FM 91.8 after the station defied the prohibition against broadcasting news. Independent news radio stations read the decision as confirmation that the ban was illegal. After more than six months of silence, dozens of independent FM radio stations across the country resumed broadcasting news.
The victory was short-lived. In October, the ax fell again on Nepal’s press when the king promulgated the media ordinance that journalists had been protesting, reinstating the ban on FM radio news broadcasts. It placed limits on ownership that seemed specifically to target Kantipur, the nation’s largest and most independent media group; codified restrictions on criticizing the king and the royal family; and increased the maximum penalty for defamation to two years in prison.
Media groups again filed petitions with the Supreme Court in hopes that the judiciary would overturn the law. At the same time, the financial effects of the king’s clampdown proved durable. The government withdrew advertising from independent news outlets, depriving them of a major source of revenue. Most newspapers significantly reduced the number of pages published.
Scores, perhaps hundreds, of journalists were arrested after February 1. Most were detained only briefly, but others were held for weeks or even months under harsh antiterrorism legislation that allows lengthy detention without trial. By December 1, when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists worldwide, only one Nepalese journalist, Tel Narayan Sapkota, remained in confinement. The former editor of the weekly Yojana has been held since November 2003, when police arrested him at a printing facility. Sapkota told CPJ that he was kept blindfolded for five months before his transfer out of police barracks. He has never been convicted of a crime.
Torture by Nepal’s security forces is commonplace. In July, journalist Chandra Giri, formerly chief reporter of the Kathmandu weekly Shram, told CPJ that he had been blindfolded and tortured with electric shocks, beatings, and cold water following his detention on December 31, 2004. Security forces interrogated him about his alleged Maoist connections and news sources. Giri was released from prison in June after a habeas corpus petition was filed with the Supreme Court on his behalf. He later sought damages from the army.
In October, imprisoned journalist Maheshwar Pahari died in custody after multiple illnesses he endured in custody. Local doctors had recommended transferring Pahari to Kathmandu for treatment, but authorities refused, citing security concerns. Pahari, a reporter for the weekly Rastriya Swabhiman, was detained in January 2004 and rearrested multiple times under antiterrorism laws. Local journalists told CPJ that security forces might have held him to gather information about his contacts within the Maoist movement. He was never charged or tried.
While the king defended his moves as a necessary component of his fight against the Maoist insurgency, the rebels were no weaker at year’s end than before. They continued to control much of the country, and ousted opposition leaders agreed to meet with Maoist negotiators in India after the rebels called a cease-fire in the fall.