Government must act to protect female journalists

New York, January 12, 2009–The Nepalese government must act immediately to protect female journalists in the wake of the brutal murder of one reporter and death threats made against another in the volatile Terai plains of southern Nepal, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. 

About 15 unidentified people attacked Uma Singh, a 24-year-old print and radio reporter, in her home in the southeastern district of Dhanusa on Sunday night, according to local and international news reports. Singh died of multiple stab wounds to the head and upper body while being transferred from a local hospital to a larger one later that evening.

Brij Kumar Yadav, Singh’s editor at the Nepali-language daily Janakpur Today, told Agence France-Presse that her recent coverage of women’s rights and local political issues could have been the cause of the attack.

The Kantipur news group also reported that its Dhanusa-based reporter Manika Jha was threatened in her home on Sunday by a group of three or four people who broke her windows and told her that she would be the next person to be attacked. Police provided a guard at her residence, according to the group’s Web site, eKantipur.

Women journalists in Dhanusa demanded official protection in October 2008, claiming dozens had been forced to quit after threats from armed groups, eKantipur reported.

Sunday’s attacks come just weeks after Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal publicly reaffirmed the government’s commitment to protecting the press following an escalation of violent attacks on the media. News outlets raised an outcry after assailants struck the offices of the Himalmedia publishing company in December, with many newspapers leaving pages blank in protest.  

“The violent death of our colleague Uma Singh is a tragedy and her attackers must be prosecuted,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ Asia Program Coordinator. “This killing should act as a wake-up call to the Maoist-led government. For too long Nepal has failed to respond to female journalists in the Terai region and their calls for much-needed protection.”

Singh also worked for the local FM station Radio Today, according to news reports. She opposed threats to women’s rights–including the local tradition of costly dowries paid by the bride’s family before marriage–and criticized political leaders involved in local unrest stemming from ethnic separatist movements, the reports said.

The local news Web site Republica reported on Monday that police had arrested four people in connection with Singh’s murder. It quoted state-owned Nepal TV saying that a local political group had claimed responsibility for the slaying, saying it was committed “mistakenly.” Other news outlets said the motive was still unknown.

Militant groups operating in the plains and low hills of the Terai advocate autonomy, and the region has seen outbreaks of violence since 2006, according to published analyses. Despite opening negotiations with some groups, the recently elected government, dominated by the Communist Party of Nepal, has failed to stem the aggression.

The Janakpur offices of the Terai Times were also attacked and staff assaulted on October 20 after the paper published articles alleging the Maoist’s youth branch, the Young Communist League, was involved in local criminal activities, according to local and international news reports.

“It is a big problem working in the Terai region,” Singh told the U.N. Mission in Nepal during an interview last year, which is available on YouTube. “Society doesn’t accept [women] with equal perspectives. They say the work we have been doing is not good.” She also described pressures from local organizations and armed groups. “If we don’t air the news of their choice, they threaten us with killing,” she said. But, she said, she and her colleagues did not bow to their orders. “We also have to balance our news.”