• Three media owners slain. Kantipur group faces threats, obstruction.
• Maoist cadres burn copies of two Kathmandu newspapers.
7th: Ranking on CPJ’s Impunity Index, reflecting one of the world’s worst records in solving press murders.
The repeated failure to elect a leader cast doubt on the success of Nepal’s transition from a monarchy enmeshed in civil war to a democratic republic. While a coalition government was elected in 2008, two prime ministers have since resigned, leaving a power vacuum that India and China have been accused of exploiting. Law and order suffered as multiple political parties jockeyed for influence. Three prominent media owners were killed for unknown motives. Attacks on working journalists continued throughout the year, and there were reports of political groups torching newspapers to prevent distribution of news they did not like.
THE PRESS: 2010
• Main Index
• Partisan Journalism
And the Cycle
• Sri Lanka
• Other nations
Newspapers in Nepal spent the early months of 2010 counting down to the expiration of the country’s constitution on May 28. The deadline also marked the end of interim rule by the Constituent Assembly, the legislative authority tasked with maintaining a government until it produces the new constitution. With the drafting being nowhere near complete, parties still bickered over the terms of the vote to extend the deadline–and their own leadership–until after midnight on the final day, before agreeing to extend the assembly’s lifetime for another year.
Former Maoist rebels of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) held a majority in the assembly, but their leader, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, resigned as prime minister in 2009 over a dispute with the chief of the army. The Maoists refused to cooperate with his replacement, Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) candidate, who officially stepped down on June 30 but continued to act as caretaker as repeated rounds of assembly polls failed to select a replacement.
Apparently unrelated killings of three prominent media owners shook the journalism community. No motives were immediately disclosed in the shooting murders of Jamim Shah in Kathmandu in February, Arun Singhaniya in Dhanusa district in March, and Devi Prasad Dhital in the district of Dang in July, according to CPJ research. Some journalists believed they were the targets of criminal groups who extort business owners for cash and assassinate those who don’t comply.
The death of Singhaniya, chairman of the Today Group, heightened the sense of vulnerability among journalists in the unstable southern Terai region. Uma Singh, a journalist with the group’s news outlets, Janakpur Today and Radio Today, was fatally stabbed in 2009 for reporting on land seizures. No specific connection was immediately established between the two killings, but at least three armed groups who advocate for political independence for ethnic Madhesis in the Terai plains around Dhanusa claimed responsibility for Singhaniya’s murder. Factions of Madhesi activists frequently threaten journalists in relation to coverage, and a similar group claimed to have killed Singh. A police investigation in the Singh case, which looked at local Maoists as suspects, was pending in late year.
On June 14, also in Dhanusa, two unidentified men on motorcycles fired shots at Mohan Gole, local correspondent for the state-owned Rastriya Samachar Samiti news agency and assistant editor of the weekly Sagarmatha Khabar Saptahik, as he was riding his motorcycle with a local human rights leader as passenger. Bullets lodged in Gole’s helmet and motorcycle, but there were no injuries, according to local news reports. The motive for the attack was not clear.
Journalists at the Kantipur group were threatened by telephone and e-mail for reporting on the murder of Jamim Shah, chairman of television and satellite Space Time Network, Kunda Dixit, publisher of the Nepali Times, reported on the CPJ Blog. Kantipur publications reported that Shah had links to Pakistani intelligence and likened his murder to that of a politician, carried out by an Indian criminal 11 years ago for alleged “anti-Indian” activities.
The Kantipur group also accused the Indian Embassy of interfering with its coverage. Its English-language newspapers, Kantipur and the Kathmandu Post, accused the embassy of punitively withdrawing advertisements from the company, according to news reports. In June, shipments of newsprint from India for the Kantipur papers were delayed for more than a week by what India’s embassy in Nepal called a routine customs investigation. Kantipur and the Post protested that the delay was in retaliation for a report saying Indian Ambassador Rakesh Sood pressured Nepal’s government to award a contract for production of machine-readable passports to an Indian company. While the newsprint was eventually delivered, ill feelings lingered. In September, the Indian embassy accused Kantipur newspapers of reporting negatively about an Indian company’s products after failing to obtain company advertising, according to Indian daily The Hindu. Kantipur denied the accusations.
In September, The Economist reported that Ambassador Sood had called a number of newspaper editors to encourage coverage of an audio recording of a Maoist leader, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, and an unidentified Chinese man discussing how to bribe lawmakers to elect a Maoist prime minister. The Maoists denied any bribery allegations while acknowledging that parts of the recording may have been authentic.
Former prime minister Dahal, chairman of the pro-China Unified Maoists Party, suggested a “China, Nepal, and India tripartite alliance” to ensure Nepal’s stability, news reports said. He made the comments in October soon after he returned to Kathmandu from a five-day trip to China. Pro-India politicians quickly criticized the idea, driving a deeper wedge into the coalition government. Soon after, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao called China-Nepal relations a “model” and announced the opening of a China Study Center in the eastern Nepalese town of Jhapa, along the West Bengal border.
While some journalists worried about outside international infringements on their freedom, others had concerns about their personal safety. A group of men armed with metal rods attacked Lilanath Ghimire, a reporter for Fast Times Daily, in Dharan, eastern Sunsari district, on August 15 when he arrived at a restaurant to check out a tip that a police officer was intoxicated and dancing with patrons, according to local news reports. Ghimire was injured when he was struck in the right eye with a glass. In October, a banner was raised in the center of Dharan, threatening reporters: “We will take action against you.”
Groups affiliated with multiple political parties assailed the press, according to local press freedom groups. Maoists were accused in two prominent cases in western Nepal. Mandavi Radio reporter Keshav Bohara said he was abducted in Pyuthan district on June 30. He told police the next day that five people had held him blindfolded in a car for 36 hours while questioning him about his report that the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) had occupied land belonging to a prominent Hindu temple, according to local news reports. No arrests were reported in the case.
The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) said Maoists were behind a late-2009 attack in Rukim in which masked assailants slashed 22-year-old Tika Bista with razor blades and left her in critical condition in a forest. The federation said the attack was in reprisal for the journalist’s article in the newspaper Jantidhara that described a politician widowed by Maoists in 1999. Bista survived, but underwent extensive hospital treatment. A Maoist spokesman alleged that she had attempted suicide but did not offer evidence, according to local journalist Guna Raj Luitel, reporting on the CPJ blog. FNJ dismissed the Maoist claims as a cover-up and, within a few weeks, accused Maoists of being behind the attack.
On May 28, publishers of the Nagarik and Republica dailies in Kathmandu accused pro-Maoist cadres of burning copies of the two dailies and disrupting their distribution in other parts of the country. The papers had reported on the purported kidnapping of a local doctor, apparently stemming from an internal party dispute.
The failure to prosecute these attacks mirrored a larger trend of impunity for atrocities committed by both Maoists and monarchists in the decade-long civil war. With seven unsolved journalist murders on record since 1992, Nepal ranked seventh in the world on CPJ’s 2010 Impunity Index, which highlights countries where journalists are regularly murdered and governments fail to solve the crimes.