Area: 147,180 sq.km.
Population: 25,164 000
Head of state: King Gyanendra
Nepalese journalists are caught in the crossfire between Maoist rebels and government forces. More than 400 journalists were arrested or imprisoned by the army in 2004 and more than 30 were harassed by the Maoists. In some weeks dozens of journalists were assaulted.
Nepal’s human rights record is at red alert. In July, eight UN experts described the situation as "extremely serious", particularly because of the large number of secret detentions and the generalised use of torture. In October, Human Rights Watch spoke of a "dirty war" in which the army was attempting to "break the back" of rebels through increased extra-judicial killings and reprisals against civilians. Journalists are accused of producing Maoist propaganda if they publicise atrocities committed by the security forces and abuses by the authorities.
King Gyanendra has systematically shielded his troops and justified their actions. As army chief, he allows his troops to attack those, particularly within the press, who criticise him in his role as head of state.
Soldiers and police deal out their own brand of personal justice. If they consider an article or any reporting offensive, they take it out directly on the writer, especially if it involves a provincial correspondent, since they are less well protected by their newspapers.
On 17 June soldiers beat Subid Guragain, correspondent for the daily Rajdhani and detained him for several hours after an article appeared on army abuses of civilians. Soldiers in plain clothes attacked and made death threats against photographer Prakash Mathema on 9 November after one of his pictures featuring a soldier carrying one of his comrades with a leg wound, appeared on the front page of the daily Kantipur. The military considered the photograph humiliating.
Maoists slit a journalist’s throat
The Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist (CPN-M) has for a long time been trying to improve its image. Some journalists, susceptible to their message of social justice, have even presented them as new "Robin Hoods".
But in 2004, the entire profession was united in condemning Maoist crimes against their colleagues. Five hundred journalists answered a call from the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) and demonstrated in the streets of the capital after the 11 August murder of Dekendra Raj Thapa, of state-run Radio Nepal in the west of the country. They sent an ultimatum to the CPN-M leadership who apologised for this "party mistake". "We assure Nepal’s journalistic community that we will not make this kind of mistake again in the future," said Maoist leader Krishna Bahadur Mahara.
But in the weeks that followed, journalists were again attacked by the Maoists. On 13 September, Shakti Kumar Pun, correspondent for national daily Rajdhani in the western district of Rukum, was kidnapped. The rebels admitted having abducted him to question him, suspecting him of having collaborated with the army in the arrest of five Maoist leaders. Three months later he was released by the military but then detained at a police station in Musikot, Rukum district, accused of collusion with the CPN-M.
The Maoists are always ready to take radical measures to impose their will. On 17 May, they blew up a Radio Nepal relay station in Kanchanpur district in the far west. A distributor for the daily Annapurna Post was murdered on 27 May for failing to observe a general strike call. In December, they held Tulasi Thapa Kshitija, reporter for the weeklies Panchthar Times and Aakha for two days and forced him to join the party to be allowed to continue working in the district they control.
Also in December, the bi-monthly Samishran, in Parbat, central-western Nepal, was forced to close as a result of constant pressure from rebels, angry at its failure to publish its press releases. Dozens of journalists sought refuge in the cities and particularly in Katmandu to escape harassment from the Maoists and the security forces. Many have been left virtually destitute.
The pro CPN-M press itself has all but disappeared. Its journalists have gone underground or have been directly implicated in the armed struggle. A photo of pro-Maoist journalist Iswor Chandra Gyawali in combat gear was published in the Katmandu press. In rebel-held zones, journalists are expected to produce propaganda and collect news and information for the party. In 2004, a Maoist leader said the security forces had killed more than 20 of them. The only paper that still appears, Janadesh, has not been on sale at newsstands since August 2003, but can be accessed online. Janadesh’s unconditional support for the Maoist’s armed struggle is, says Reporters Without Borders, a serious violation of journalistic ethics.
Tight control for the state-run media
Nepal’s written press remains however very diverse. Dailies in Nepali and English boast of their independence from political parties which have been largely discredited by corruption and their inability to halt the war. Privately-owned radio and television, particularly cable, are also part of an increasingly diversified landscape. But the government, aware of their potential impact on a largely illiterate population, keeps a tight control over the news. Security forces detained a reporter on Swargadwari FM radio for one week from 13 March, for reports they considered too favourable to the Maoists.
State-run media such as Radio Nepal, Nepal Television and press agency RSS, are strictly controlled. In April, the government sacked the producers of Radio Nepal’s "Ghatana Ra Bichar" programme and replaced them with royalist party activists, after they demonstrated their solidarity with journalists detained by the security forces.
The return to the job of prime minister by Sher Bahadur Deuba, of the Nepali Congress Party, allowed the Federation of Nepalese Journalists to negotiate the release of around a dozen journalists. Often abducted by the security forces, they were held secretly and often maltreated. On several occasions the army and police refused to set free journalists even when ordered to do so by the Supreme Court.
2 were journalists killed
1 media contributor was killed
13 journalists were kidnapped
413 journalists imprisoned or arrested
76 journalists physically attacked
29 journalists threatened
and 7 media ransacked
"I know I’m risking my life"
Journalist and human rights activist Durga Thapa was kidnapped in late July 2004 by a group of armed Maoists in the western Surkhet region and was held for more than two weeks. His release was negotiated by a representative of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. He was interviewed by the Reporters Without Borders correspondent in Kathmandu in December.
Why did the Maoists kidnap you?
They kidnapped me because I am a journalist but also a human rights activist. I had condemned both the crimes committed by the state and those perpetrated by the Maoists. They did not appreciate it. What’s more, I also campaigned for the release of 26 local leaders of the Nepalese Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist) held by the Maoists and I supported Jhakkat Basnet, a member of the Nepalese Congress Party who they had threatened to kill.
All Nepalese journalists know that what the Maoists say may be conciliatory but, in practice, they don’t tolerate views contrary to their own. Otherwise, they would not kidnap and kill journalists. The army and the Maoists behave in the same way - they are intolerant.
In what kind of conditions were you detained?
During my 16 days of "people’s detention," as the Maoists call it, I was treated well, except when they interrogated me. They went so far as to threaten to kill me. But they also promised to take care of me if I supported them.
Did your abduction have repercussions on your work?
Since then my contacts with both sides have been completely severed, which prevents me from doing my work in an independent manner. The security forces, who took a dim view of my commitment to human rights, continue to criticise me. And the Maoists continue to perceive me as an aggressor. That’s why I cannot overcome my fear. The Maoists must stop treating journalists as spies, and the security forces must cease to systematically regard journalists as Maoists.
What keeps you going?
I’ve been practising this trade for eight years. I’ve had lots of ups and downs, good moments and bad moments, but journalism is an important part of my life. When they were holding me, the Maoists warned me they would do me no harm if I wasn’t active. But this is the only work I have to earn a living. That’s why I go on, even if I know I’m risking my life.
Do you have any support?
The Kamana publishing house I work for awarded me a prize this year, the Bhushan Journalism Award. I also have the backing of civil society organisations. But no one is really looking after my safety. This is a problem that all journalists have in Nepal. In short, my readers, the public, and national and international press freedom organisations are my best support. Their sympathy and solidarity has helped me keep going.
How do journalists work in the war zones?
It is getting more and more difficult in the district of Surkhet. As the correspondent of the daily Nepal Samacharpatra, I used to visit all the areas in the district with other journalists regularly. Since my abduction, no journalist has wanted to leave Birendranagar, the main town. They are afraid and that’s understandable.