The 2006 peace agreement with the Maoists was rapidly overshadowed by violence in the south of the country where the Madhesi people protested against the government which it said had treated them unfairly. Journalists, particularly correspondents for national media, who were accused of being in cahoots with the “powerful in the capital”, lived through hell. Around 100 of them were physically assaulted, threatened or forced to flee after being threatened by Madhesi militants who grew ever more radical. Lists of “wanted” journalists along with rewards were posted up in the southern town of Birgunj at the end of January. A dozen reporters left the Parsa, Bara and Rautatah districts, in fear of their lives.
Elsewhere the Maoists blew hot and cold towards the press. After the Maoists pulled out of government in September, groups of trade unionists and young Maoists launched a campaign of threats against the media. Some party leaders imposed a reign of fear throughout whole regions, preventing journalists from working freely. But a return to government by the former rebels at the end of December, after securing a transition towards a republic, gave rise to hopes of a reduction in violence in 2008.
Wave of brutality in the Terai
No fewer than 70 journalists were assaulted or threatened by different armed groups in the Terai (South) between January and June, seeking either to silence them or force them to become spokespersons. Rioters beat three journalists and a photographer taking pictures in the streets of Morang in the south on 29 January. The previous evening partly, demonstrators destroyed the radio station FM Birgunj as well as the offices of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) in Birgunj. Journalists reacted by going on strike.
The authorities, who were overwhelmed and on occasion complicit, proved themselves incapable of protecting journalists or arresting those responsible for the violence. The Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum (MJAF) sowed fear by publishing lists of journalists accused of being “traitors”. Correspondents for Nepal Television, Radio Nepal, Kantipur Publications and Nepal FM 91.8 were targeted at the end of January. The MJAF alone was responsible for at least 25 assaults on journalists in 2007. In March, an even more radical organisation, the Madhesi Tiger Nepal (MTN), threatened reprisals against journalists in Nepalgunj if they tried to cover a strike. This organisation blocked circulation of local publications and distribution of national media.
Members of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha party (JTMM) threatened staff at Narayani FM and Radio Birgunj in June, for failing to broadcast news about a strike they had launched. The same group had been responsible for kidnapping Rajendra Rai and Dewaan Rai, of the Auzaar National Daily in January. In April, another group, the JTMM-G, called on members of its revolutionary group to “physically attack” journalists working for Image Channel Television and radio Image FM. The two media had both put out reports on their abuses.
Security forces showed more restraint towards the press than previously but some incidents brought back memories of their past methods. In July, Bhojraj Basnet and Ambika Bhandari, two journalists on the Samyantra Weekly, were attacked by two police officers in Belbari, eastern Nepal, after it carried an article headlined, “this is how police collect their bribes”. Both journalists fled the town.
Two journalists killed by Maoist leaders
Maoist cadres demonstrated their ruthlessness towards the press. At least five journalists were kidnapped and two were killed by former rebels. The trade unionists and young Maoists used different method of harassing independent media, whom they accused of damaging them or defending the monarchy.
Maoist leaders finally acknowledged at a press conference on 5 November that party cadres had abducted and murdered journalist Birendra Shah, 34, of Nepal FM, Dristri Weekly and Avenues TV in Bara, central Nepal. After a month of silence and lies, the Maoists established that the journalist had been beaten to death on the day he was kidnapped by Lal Bahadur Chaudhary, member of the Maoist regional committee of Bara, central Nepal. Two other party cadres, Kundan Faujdar and Ram Ekwal Sahani, helped kidnap and kill the reporter.
On the other hand, the Maoists have never publicly admitted to the 5 July kidnapping of Prakash Singh Thakuri, from the daily Aajako Samachar in Kanchanpur in western Nepal. The spokesman for the hitherto unknown armed group, the National Republican Army said on 8 July that it had killed Prakash Thakuri, justifying his killing on the basis of his articles favourable to the king. But his wife said she was convinced that the Young Communist League, affiliated to the Maoist party, were the instigators of the kidnapping. Police arrested one of them, Pomlal Sharma. The Maoists denied all involvement in the case. The journalist’s body has not been found.
A third journalist killed during the year, Shankar Panthi, was however working for the pro-Maoist newspaper Naya Satta Daily in Sunawal, in western Nepal. Police who found his body on the roadside on 14 September initially believed that he was the victim of an accident, his bicycle having apparently been struck by a car. But following protests from his family and the Association of Revolutionary Journalists, police accepted that his death had not been an accident.
Maoists kidnapped at least three other journalists including in October a reporter on Mahakali FM, Pappu Gurund, who was held captive for three days in Dodhara, western Nepal along with his wife. Gurund said his captors threatened him with reprisals if he did not give up his profession.
Blockades and sabotage
The Maoists departure from government in September fuelled tension with privately-owned media. Maoist trade unions held a series of strikes, against those they believed favourable to their opponents.
First in July and then again in August, the dailies, The Himalayan Times and the Annapurna Post were not distributed for several days because the pro-Maoist union, All Nepal Communication, Printing and Publication Workers Union (ANCPPWU), imposed a blockade to punish it for publishing critical articles. Union leaders announced they would “kill anyone who distributes the two dailies”. During a peaceful demonstration held by the Nepal Press Union on 9 August, 25 journalists were beaten up by members of the Young Communist League in Kathmandu.
The press group Kantipur in its turn became a target of unions affiliated to the Maoist party who in September blocked circulation of newspapers, threatened staff and committed serious acts of sabotage. Using salary demands as justification, the campaign led militants of the ANCPPWU to sabotage an electric system at the Kantipur group’s printers and to try to torch one of the group’s buildings in the capital. During a demonstration, one Maoist leader said, “The Nepalese won’t die of lack of news from Kantipur. We don’t need their news, nor their journalists either (...) we are ready within an hour to assemble one hundred thousand workers to attack Kantipur”. At the same time, Maoists set fire to one thousand copies of the newspaper in Bharatpur and Pokhara in central Nepal and at Biratnagar in the east of the country.
The Editors Alliance, a new organisation created by the management of the country’s leading privately-owned newspapers in response to the constant threats, spoke out against a “sinister scenario of intimidation and threats against journalists” by organisations affiliated to the Maoist party.
A return to peace in 2008?
The Maoists re-entry to government in December has given rise to fresh hope for a more peaceful year in 2008. But general elections scheduled during the year could again stoke up violence in regions where armed groups have imposed their will.
Moreover, a generalised climate of impunity in connection with murders committed during the long years of civil war has allowed the security forces as much as the Maoists to get away with murders and disappearances of journalists.
Throughout the year, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) has played a crucial role in exposing and condemning violence against the press, including through its investigations and on-the-spot mediation efforts. The FNJ also pushed for the adoption by the interim parliament in July of a law on the right to access to information. This guarantees all citizens access to information about public bodies and provides for the creation of a national information commission responsible for the application of the new law. In the same way, the adoption of the law on working journalists was made possible in August thanks to the efforts of professional bodies and gives better protection to media employees.