New York, May 23, 2012--Authorities in Nepal must protect journalists seeking to report on developments in the volatile run-up to Sunday's deadline for a new constitution, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today. Dozens of journalists were reportedly attacked by ethnic activists during a three-day general strike that began Sunday, according to news reports.
The country-wide strike was called by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), a coalition that believes the constitution should divide Nepal into ethnically distinct states, the reports said. The Constituent Assembly, which is drafting the country's first constitution since the 2006 end to the decade-long civil war, has repeatedly extended the original 2010 deadline to complete the document due to internal disagreements--a delay that has had a negative effect on press freedom, according to CPJ research. Future extensions would be in violation of a Supreme Court ruling, so it is not clear what will happen if the disruption caused by the strikers contributes to a further postponement, Reuters reported.
Protesters supporting the strike have attacked or harassed numerous journalists in separate incidents around the country since Sunday, according to a report by the Federation of Nepali Journalists, a local press freedom group. The report cites at least 25 instances in which journalists were attacked or their equipment damaged or seized. Motives varied, and the attacks did not appear to be coordinated.
"Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai and other political leaders must demonstrate their commitment to press freedom with strong condemnations of anti-press violence, and by ensuring the assailants are prosecuted," said CPJ Deputy Director Robert Mahoney. "The media must be able to report freely as the country approaches a historic date in its transition to democratic rule."
NEFIN President Raj Kumar Lekhi told local journalists that it was not the group's policy to attack the media, according to Agence France-Presse. Police have detained at least 50 people for involvement in the violent strike, according to local and international news reports.
CPJ met with Bhattarai in February as part of an international fact-finding and advocacy mission, and has been lobbying party leaders and members of the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting the constitution to strengthen press freedom protections.