— GIJN (@gijn) September 24, 2016
Kunda Dixit cut his once mop-like white hair, grew a beard, and quietly went into hiding, eventually fleeing Nepal for the safety of the U.S. to avoid arrest. And in doing so, the prominent journalist, publisher, and frequent writer for the Nepali Times, skipped out on a major international journalism conference he was co-sponsoring with the Global Investigative Journalism Network. In a videotaped speech played at the conference, attended by over 350 journalists, mainly from Asia, he blamed a “political witch hunt” for his self-imposed exile.
Dixit’s absence is a vivid illustration of the chill that’s settled over the Nepali press. The popular word around the Uncovering Asia conference I attended for CPJ in Kathmandu last month was “self-censorship,” a fear that aggressive free speech might invite unwelcome regulatory or financial investigations.
Dixit, the founder of the Nepal Center for Investigative Journalism, was being investigated in what he says was a politically motivated case by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority over how he acquired property and other assets. He said he saw his arrest as imminent following his fierce criticism in the Nepali Times of the head of the commission, Lokman Singh Karki, and after receiving orders to appear before authorities.
Leaving Nepal may have saved Dixit from the fate of his brother, Kanak, who was imprisoned for 10 days in March during an investigation into alleged financial improprieties, before the Nepali Supreme Court ordered that he be released. Kanak Dixit is also a journalist, although he described himself to me as more of a political activist, compared to his brother. He traces much of the turmoil surrounding the two brothers to his public opposition, including joining a sit-in three years ago, to the appointment of Karki as head of the powerful Nepali Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Ganesh Raj Karki, a spokesperson for the commission, told the Associated Press that the Dixit brothers are being investigated for the amount of property they have in their names.
Kunda Dixit said that just after the conference, the Supreme Court stayed the proceedings against him in a move that will allow him to return to Nepal without fear of immediate arrest. But the cases against the two brothers, focusing partly on assets they inherited from their father decades ago and starting after they took a critical editorial stance on Karki, remain hanging over their heads. Kanak Dixit said he faces additional investigations related to business activities not connected to journalism.
Aside from the Dixit brothers, a major casualty of this apparently political confrontation is freedom of the press in Nepal.
Himal Southasian, a quarterly journal that covered region-wide political, social, and cultural issues, is producing its last issue in November, ending–or at least suspending–29 years of continuous operation. The journal, founded and edited by Kanak Dixit for many years, saw itself as uniquely pan-regional in focus, its current editor Aunohita Mojumdar, said. Mojumdar, Indian by birth, began writing for Himal Southasian as a freelancer in Afghanistan before coming to Kathmandu to edit the journal. “For all of my eight years in Afghanistan, this was the only publication that asked me to write about what I wanted to write about,” she said, including on issues such as health, education, and gender.
Himal Southasian has US$100,000 in grants to continue operation, donors confirmed to CPJ, but it can’t touch the money without government approval, which has been withheld without explanation since the start of the year. Himal Southasian is a not-for-profit publication under the auspices of The Southasia Trust, an organization that sponsors the journal and a biennial film festival, and is chaired by Kanak Dixit. “Government officials in the various regulatory departments privately admit that the trust has been in full compliance but regret their inability to process papers due to ‘pressures,’ citing powerful state entities who they refuse to name for the record,” said a statement released by Himal Southasian when it announced the suspension of publication.
In the past, said Mojumdar, approval of grants for the journal were routinely processed in a few months by the Social Welfare Council, the government-appointed body responsible for regulating non-profits. This time, political pressure simply led to inaction by the council, starving Himal Southasian of money, she said.
The Social Welfare Council did not immediately respond to CPJ’s request for comment.
U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Alaina B. Teplitz, told a group of journalists at the conference that the U.S. government is concerned about press freedom in Nepal, but despite a “heavily politicized environment,” did not see “systemic efforts to quash expression or crush the media,” apparently meaning a lack of official censorship or government policy against the press. Still, systemic or not, press freedom is under assault in Nepal.
Kanak Dixit said it’s too late to revive Himal Southasian in Nepal, but he will try to move the publication elsewhere, to New Delhi or Colombo or, as a last resort, Bangkok. Each location brings its own set of complications and regulatory hurdles, and a move to Bangkok would amount to a kind of surrender, an admission that a journal about South Asia cannot find a welcoming home in the region that it covers.
Meanwhile, hopes rise and fall for a shift in the political landscape. The Supreme Court, the same body that intervened in legal cases against the Dixit brothers, has begun a review of the appointment of Karki to the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority, according to press reports.