• Government fails to investigate press freedom abuses.
• Reporter slain after covering Maoist land seizures.
8th: Ranking on CPJ Impunity Index, making it one of world’s worst for press.
Nepal’s news media entered 2009 in a state of crisis. Attacks on the press had escalated in late 2008 amid a climate of impunity. The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), a local press freedom group, led weeklong, nationwide demonstrations to raise awareness about the deteriorating environment. On December 28, 2008, Maoist leaders signed a 10-point agreement to address the lawless situation. Clauses included a promise to create a governmental bureau to investigate press freedom violations, local news reports said.
THE PRESS: 2009
• Main Index
• As fighting surges,
so does danger to press
• Makings of a Massacre
• North Korea
• Sri Lanka
• Other developments
But a full year later, as 2009 was coming to an end, the agreement had yet to be implemented and optimism was scant. The January slaying of a journalist who had documented Maoist land seizures had further chilled a press corps that had grown accustomed to unpunished attacks.
Nepal had made a historic political shift in 2008 from a monarchy to a coalition-ruled democratic republic under the leadership of former Maoist rebels. During the decade-long civil war that preceded a 2006 peace accord and transition to multiparty democracy, both rebels and monarchists were responsible for harassment, detention, disappearances, and murders of journalists, nearly all of which have gone unpunished. Abuses did not cease with the communist faction’s inclusion in the democratic process. Maoists accused of murdering journalists Birendra Shah in 2007 and J.P. Joshi in 2008 remained at large. International human rights groups said the party’s Youth Communist League abducted and likely murdered freelancer Prakash Singh Thakuri in 2007. Police dropped an investigation into the disappearance—Thakuri’s body was never recovered—in February 2009, according to FNJ.
In late 2008, the Nepali-language monthly Nepali Sarokar catalogued war-time Maoist land seizures on the Terai plains, in southern Siraha district. On January 11, as many as 15 men with knives entered the compound where the article’s author, Uma Singh, a print and radio reporter in her 20s, had rented a ground-floor apartment. A neighbor discovered the journalist, mortally stabbed, on the veranda of her one-room dwelling. The brutal murder combined the worst of Nepal’s media climate: ineffective police investigation, alleged Maoist involvement, and ethnic tensions destabilizing the plains along the India-Nepal border. Local journalists said police ignored Singh’s profession as a possible motive for fear of political repercussions and arrested five people, including the victim’s sister-in-law. The five were accused of killing Singh over a property dispute.
Property did play a role, according to an International Media Mission report compiled by press freedom groups that visited Nepal in February; Singh believed Maoists abducted and murdered her father and brother in 2005 and had seized family land. Yet she defended all victims displaced in the conflict, and addressed sensitive issues including communal violence and women’s rights in print and on air.
The arrests of the five people, who included a local Maoist, did not assuage the concerns of Singh’s colleagues, who said at least two cadres affiliated with a former Maoist minister tied to abuses Singh documented had fled the country after the crime. Other suspects had links with armed groups of ethnic Madhesis, who traditionally occupy the plains and are engaged in an often-violent campaign for political autonomy, or, at its most extreme, a separate state. The Terai Ekta Parishad, one of dozens of such groups, made an unverified claim to have murdered Singh, according to the international mission.
“There is no denying that [Singh] may have had a personal stake in the issue of land seizures, but her journalism was exercised in the larger public interest,” the mission report said. After consulting with police, family members, and colleagues, the mission concluded that, although there were several overlapping motives and actors involved, her work was a major factor in her death.
Singh’s killing was not solved by late year, and its shadow hung over the Terai press. Several journalists left the region, according to local news reports. Madhesi groups separately threatened two regional correspondents for independent media group Kantipur Publications: Jitendra Khadka in January and Manika Jha in February. Parsa district’s Gadhimai FM programmer Gyanendra Raj Misra was wounded in the hand in a February shooting that FNJ reported was work-related. In August, the Madhesh Terai Forum in Saptari district banned distribution of Nepali-language newspapers—the region is dominated by dialects of Hindi—and torched 15,000 copies of national newspapers, according to FNJ.
After the 2008 elections, in which the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) won a majority, the Maoist-fronted coalition government began talks with some pro-independence Madhesis. By mid-2009, though, the government was focused on its own conflicts. In May, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal dismissed the chief of the army; in a move many believed was unconstitutional, President Ram Baran Yadav overturned the decision, prompting Dahal to resign. Maoist lawmakers walked out on a May 23 vote to select his replacement, and Madhav Kumar Nepal, of the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist), ran unopposed.
The strife deepened political fissures, and journalistic objectivity attracted punishment more often than praise. The principals behind attacks were varied, and included official agents. Police threatened Janapratibimba editor Sanjaya Saha in May for publishing a story alleging they took bribes, FNJ reported. Shiva Oli from the western Doti district went into hiding for three days in July after officials involved in a corrupt drinking water project he exposed had taken him for questioning. Later in Doti, on August 23, police beat Nepal Samacharpatra journalist Bimal Bista while subduing a mob and detained him for 48 hours, according to FNJ.
Journalists cited several confrontations with Youth Communist League members, but youth branches of other political parties were also abusive. Students, farmers, and trade unionists—often politically affiliated—assailed journalists covering their activities. In multiple incidents catalogued by FNJ, vandals stoked fires with stacks of newspapers. The national news group Kantipur Publications was a particular target, but provincial news outlets also suffered. Editorials from the capital bemoaned the rise of self-censorship.
Analysts said press freedom clauses in the interim constitution enacted in 2007 provide a positive framework for the document’s final manifestation, which Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal declared would be adopted on schedule by May 2010. However, journalists complained that existing legislation, such as the 2007 Right to Information Act, has yet to be implemented. Prime Minister Nepal also committed to reversing impunity in a range of human rights abuses. Nepal ranked eighth worst in the world on CPJ’s 2009 Impunity Index, which lists countries that have consistently failed to solve journalist murders.