Journalists played a lead role in resisting and ultimately reversing an audacious 14-month power grab by King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. Hundreds took to the streets in the capital, Kathmandu, and elsewhere to protest measures by the king to suspend radio news broadcasts and deploy the country’s security forces and civil authorities to harass and censor the press. Journalists’ refusal to bend to these restrictions contributed to a popular shift in favor of democracy. In April, political party leaders, civil-society activists, and journalists joined in mass demonstrations held in defiance of the government’s shoot-on-sight curfew orders. Nineteen people were killed in a crackdown on the protests, but the violent response backfired on the king. By April 24, his support eroding, Gyanendra pledged to return power to Parliament.
The king’s ostensible reason for seizing direct control of the country in February 2005 was to force an end to the 10-year conflict between the government and Maoist rebels fighting to overthrow Nepal’s constitutional monarchy. In the end, it was Gyanendra’s downfall that brought this goal within tenuous reach. After wresting control of the Royal Nepalese Army from the king, the Seven Party Alliance headed by newly appointed Prime Minister G.P. Koirala entered into peace talks with Maoists under rebel leader Prachanda. The two sides bridged differences over rebel disarmament and the future of the monarchy to forge a peace deal in November declaring a formal end to the war. The accord cleared the way for the 2007 election of a constituent assembly expected to decide the ultimate fate of the monarchy and rewrite the country’s constitution.
Serious problems remained. The country had been torn apart by conflict, and reports of extortion, abduction, and the recruitment of children to the Maoists’ People’s Liberation Army marred hopes for an immediate recovery. Journalists, who had long been targeted by both the government and the rebels, received assurances from Koirala and Prachanda that press freedom would be respected; improvements in media conditions after the king relinquished control were indisputable. Outside of Kathmandu, though, members of the press faced continued threats and harassment by local government officials, criminal groups, and, particularly, Maoist cadres.
Hundreds of journalists were detained throughout 2005 and in early 2006 for participating in or covering protests, but most were held only briefly. A greater threat was neutralized in July, when the interim government announced that no new cases would be filed under the repressive Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO), and that all prisoners held under TADO would be freed. The ordinance had been used to imprison accused Maoists, including journalists allegedly sympathetic to their cause, for long periods without charge or trial. Among those released in July was former Yojana newspaper editor Tej Narayan Sapkota, who was held in a series of army barracks and detention centers after his arrest at a printing facility in 2003. No journalist remained behind bars in Nepal when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.
The war left a record of routine abuse and torture by security personnel, who were largely given free rein under legislation like TADO. Journalist and lawyer Jitman Basnet, who was imprisoned under the antiterrorism ordinance in 2004 under suspicion of supporting the Maoists, filed a petition before the Supreme Court in October calling for action against security forces involved in torturing detainees. Basnet said that while detained, he had been held under water, underfed, and forced to urinate on an electric heater.
The Seven Party Alliance government scrapped antimedia ordinances and policies promulgated after the king’s coup, including a practice of purchasing advertising from loyal news outlets only. The alliance also solicited advice on promoting press freedom from a 13-member media commission composed of prominent independent journalists and media executives. The commission presented its report in September with recommendations on simplifying the procedures for obtaining a license to run an FM radio station, detaching public media from government control, and allowing greater foreign investment in the media.
The panel also recommended that drafts for a new constitution should note the role of the press in restoring democracy in the country and ensure press freedom and the right of information. Media advocates pointed out that an interim draft constitution proposed in November differed only slightly from the country’s 1990 constitution in regard to press freedom–and included restrictions on the rights to seek information and report matters of public interest. Political leaders pledged the need for wider media protections in the drafting of a permanent constitution, which is expected after the 2007 constituent assembly elections.
Private FM radio news, a primary source of information for the large, illiterate population in Nepal and a particular target of Gyanendra, continued a recovery that began in 2005 with legal challenges to the king’s ban on private radio news programming. As many as 2,000 radio journalists who had lost their jobs went back to work broadcasting news. Requirements for registering radio stations were eased, raising hopes for a revival exceeding pre-2005 conditions.
Despite these improvements, journalists continued to face threats and harassment in outlying rural areas. Intimidation by Maoist cadres posed a threat to independent reporting on obstacles to the peace process in regions under Maoist control. In October, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) released a report detailing attacks on journalists after the democratic uprising, including an attempt by Maoists in Nawalparasi to force two print correspondents to become members of their party; an incident in which a group of people padlocked the offices of a newspaper in the district of Morang after it reported an alleged sexual assault of a minor by a Maoist; and the three-hour detention of journalists who had traveled to the district of Bara to report on the construction of a dam. On October 16, a local Maoist leader in the eastern district of Udaypur warned journalists that only Maoists could write about Maoists.