Nepal made a historic shift in 2008 from a monarchy to a coalition-ruled democratic republic under the leadership of a former Maoist guerrilla. Journalists’ uncertainty about the ex-rebel leader’s newfound legitimacy was apparent as they struggled to find a way to refer to him in print. Most hedged their bets and used his given name, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, which identified him as a Brahmin at the top of the Hindu caste system, alongside his ethnically neutral but aggressive-sounding nom de guerre, Prachanda, or “fierce one.”
Nepal’s transformation had been under way since King Gyanendra’s failed attempt to re-establish royal rule in 2005. The king acted under heavy public pressure the following year to reinstate parliament, which then pursued a peace plan with Maoists who had waged a decade-long civil war. The former rebels joined the interim government in 2007, leading to the abolition of the monarchy. Before the accord, the news media were attacked regularly by both government forces and insurgents. The first year of the new republic, while offering some promise for the press, also reflected continuing dangers.
In April, during a tense campaign for the ruling constituent assembly, local press freedom groups logged dozens of attacks by supporters of all parties. Maoists, though far from the only offenders, were responsible for abuses in two western districts. Kantipur daily reporter Damodar Neupane was threatened for reporting Maoist violence against opposition candidates in Gorkha; police finally moved him to Kathmandu for his own safety. In Kailali, a mob beat local editor Lucky Chaudhary over his coverage of a local dispute in May; the Federation for Nepali Journalists reported that members of the Maoist paramilitary youth branch, the Young Communist League, had been involved in the attack. Although Chaudhary was not seriously injured, the beating sparked further violence, and police opened fire on a mob the next day, killing three people. A curfew was imposed, and 11 local papers shut down for a week.
Reporters in rural districts were particularly exposed to coercion and threats. In the plains and low hills of the southern Terai region adjoining India, militant groups advocate, often by violent means, political autonomy or independence for the ethnic Madhesi, or “plains people.” Militants and political representatives pressured Madhesi journalists to demonstrate ethnic loyalty in their reporting, CPJ research showed.
Nepal placed eighth on CPJ’s Impunity Index, a ranking of countries where governments have consistently failed to solve journalists’ murders. The index, compiled for the first time in 2008, calculated the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of the population in each country for the years 1998 through 2007. The higher a nation’s ranking, the greater the threat is to the press. Five journalist slayings have gone unsolved in Nepal over the last decade.
In the fall, two government ministers pledged to form a commission to investigate the killings and abductions of journalists that took place during the insurgency, according to Kantipur. But though the minister for information and communication, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, gave assurances that no political protection would be offered to anyone found guilty, local journalists had reason to be skeptical. Among other journalists, Prakash Thakuri has been missing since the conflict. Local media sources say Maoists abducted him in 2007. In July, Nepal’s National Human Rights Commission and the Federation of Nepali Journalists identified the exhumed corpse of Dekendra Raj Thapa, a Dailekh district reporter with state-run Radio Nepal, who was believed murdered by Maoists in August 2004. And renegade Maoist cadres accused by party leadership of the 2007 murder of journalist Birendra Shah had yet to be prosecuted.
Prime Minister Prachanda appeared relaxed and urbane in media appearances, reporters said. Yet his off-the-cuff statements about journalism did not augur well. Newspapers condemned his comment to Kantipur publications in May: “You did well to continuously criticize the Maoists before the elections. … But we will no longer tolerate such things because we have become the largest party.” Fellow leaders played down his words, but Prachanda raised hackles again in September when he instructed journalists at the launch of the private ABC television—one of several planned for the burgeoning industry—to be unanimously supportive on issues such as the people’s desire for peace and change. “Even a slight mistake [by a journalist] could invite a big loss,” he warned, according to news reports.
Heavy-handed press oversight was visible elsewhere, particularly as the new administration fielded pressure from its influential neighbor, China. Human Rights Watch said Nepalese police cooperated with Chinese officials to obstruct a Nepalese journalist and a foreign colleague trying to report on Tibetan unrest in March. When the Olympic torch was carried up Mount Everest in April, police escorted BBC reporter Charles Haviland from Nepal’s base camp as he tried to cover the event, the journalist said.
Two violent incidents drew concern from CPJ and other press advocacy groups in late year. In December, human remains discovered in a forest in Kailali were identified as those of Jagat Prasad Joshi, an editor and Maoist activist. Local news reports said he went missing two months earlier after writing an article in Janadisha, a Maoist daily, in which he described intraparty disputes. In November, issues of the Nepali-language biweekly Himal Kharbarpatrikar were burned in an attack on the magazine’s distribution site in Kathmandu, Editor Kanak Dixit said. The issue featured an article on youth violence.
Still, local journalists were optimistic that antagonism toward the press could be corrected, and recent legislation seemed to set the stage for improved media conditions. A National Information Commission was established in May to implement the 2007 Right to Information Act, considered an important step toward solidifying constitutional guarantees of freedom of information.
The newspaper industry saw some growth in 2008. An expansion in news outlets raised “both hopes for a diversity of voices in the media, and fears of a skills shortage diluting the quality of existing and new outlets,” writer and media observer Daniel Lak wrote to CPJ from Nepal. Some editors with the Kantipur media group, which published Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post, resigned from the company to launch the English-language Republica and the Nepalese Dainikee. The publications were scheduled for launch in 2009, according to one of the editors, Damakant Jayshi. New publications were likely to face a thin advertising market.
No journalists were imprisoned in Nepal at the time of CPJ’s December 1 census. Journalist Bhai Kaji Ghimire, who spent two years in army custody after interviewing a Maoist in 2003, characterized the country’s hope for reconciliation. “Those who know they have done serious wrong should apologize,” Ghimire told Agence France-Presse in February. “But the people in the barracks were soldiers following orders. If we start to try punishing these perpetrators, there will never be peace.”
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