Four months after King Gyanendra declared a State of Emergency on 26 November 2001, at the recommendation of Sher Bahadur Deuba’s government, a high price has already been paid in terms of press freedom violations. Security forces have arrested more than 100 journalists, and at least 30 reporters and media contributors are still being detained. Worse still, at least three journalists have been tortured by security forces while in custody. Despite these events, the country’s private newspapers and radio stations are still being permitted to keep the public informed. Articles exposing government corruption continue to appear in one of Nepal’s biggest daily newspapers. Restricted access to information and, most importantly self-censorship, only apply to military operations against Maoist forces.
A Reporters without Borders’ fact-finding team stayed in Kathmandu from 10 to 13 March 2002, where it was able to meet with journalists, managing editors, human rights activists, and lawyers and families of imprisoned journalists. On 12 March, Head of Asia-Pacific Desk Vincent Brossel, Reporters without Borders’ correspondent in Nepal, and two members of the Center for Human Rights and Democratic Studies (CEHURDES), a Nepalese organization defending freedom of the press, were received by Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba.
Thirty journalists and media contributors are currently being held for alleged acts of terrorism by virtue of the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO), a bill yet to be passed by Parliament. None of them has been sentenced, and the security forces are blocking any habeas corpus procedure initiated by certain families. Considering that the authorities have not produced enough evidence to prove that the imprisoned journalists belong to the Maoist Party, an armed movement that has committed war crimes, Reporters without Borders is demanding their release. In response to a request from the Reporters without Borders’ representative for the release of the imprisoned journalists, Nepal’s Prime Minister affirmed that the "investigations were making progress." He added, "If any errors have been made, the individuals concerned will be freed and compensated."
Individuals interviewed by Reporters without Borders-particularly those who have publicly opposed the state of emergency, confirmed that they now live in a climate of fear. "Who will be next?" a journalist wondered after the arrest of Gopal Budhathoki, Sanghu’s Editor. "The litany of deaths announced daily in the press and the presence of military patrols in the streets of Kathmandu have created an atmosphere of war that we have never experienced before," explained another Kathmandu journalist. Human rights organization officials, overwhelmed by the exponential number of exactions in Nepal, fear that the fight against the Maoist rebels will become militarized.
"The troops do as they please. They completely violate the laws by arresting, questioning, torturing and detaining suspects, especially journalists," claimed Subodh Raj Pyakurel, General Secretary of the human rights organization, INSEC. Reactions to this degrading situation are limited. The Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist, main parliamentary opposition faction), human rights organizations and journalists’ associations are putting their own welfare at risk in an attempt to break the silence over the exactions committed within the context of this fight against "Maoist terrorism."
Over 100 journalists arrested within four months
On 26 November 2001, the very day that the state of emergency was declared, security forces searched the offices of allegedly "Maoist" publications. Police officers seized computer equipment and documents. The journalists and colleagues found on the premises were arrested, while others were questioned in their homes, and another dozen went underground. Within just a few hours, the Janadesh weekly’s Govinda Acharya (Editor-in-Chief), Khil Bahadur Bhandari (Managing Editor), Deepak Sapkota (a reporter), Dipendra Rokaya (a computer operator), Manarishi Dhital, (an employee), and Ram Bhakta Maharjan (a computer operator), were arrested and detained in an unknown location. Ishwor Chandra Gyawali, Managing Editor of the Dishabodh monthly, was also questioned. The night before, the Kathmandu police had arrested Nim Bahadur Budhatoki, Dishabodh’s computer operator. Om Sharma, Janadisha daily’s Editor-in-Chief and Deepak Mainali, a computer operator, were arrested by security forces. The journalists were held in solitary confinement for 26 days before being transferred to Bhadragol Prison (in Kathmandu), where their families were finally able to visit them. Chandra Man Shrestha, a Managing Editor at Janadisha, was arrested on 27 December 2001. Authorities have provided no information about his case. It should be noted that Amar Budha, a journalist with the pro-Maoist publication Yojana, has been in custody since 9 April 1999, supposedly in Tulsipur Prison.
As a result of this dragnet, half a dozen publications more or less closely linked with the Nepalese-Maoist Communist Party that began its revolt in February 1996-namely Janadisha, Dishabodh, Yojana, Jana Aahwan and Janadesh-have been closed down. The Nepalese Prime Minister has assured Reporters without Borders that this wave of arrests and publication closings were intended "put an end to terrorist propaganda once and for all." And, he added, "From now on, no one will be permitted to incite violence."
But this wave of repressive actions did not end with allegedly pro-Maoist publications. Dozens of journalists, particularly in the districts affected by Maoist guerrilla warfare, have been arrested, interrogated, and ordered to reveal to the police and army the names of their contacts within the Maoist Party. "Some local journalists were forced to name one or two Maoist militants every day. Some officers threatened to execute them if they would not meet their quota of Maoists," testified one member of CEHURDES, a Nepal-based human rights NGO working for press freedom. "Security forces, conducting an extensive raid that lasted several weeks, during which they arrested thousands of people, have obviously committed as many abuses as mistakes," commented one INSEC officer.
On 29 November 2001, a new raid took place in the country. In the Rupandehi district, nearly 40 journalists were arrested and held for three days by security forces. Basant Pokhrel, a Jana Sangharsha reporter in Rupandehi, was only released on 17 December. Sitaram Shaha and Pawan Shreshta, two reporters working with Janakpur Awaj in the Siraha district, were also imprisoned. They were released five days later. In the Uydapur district (in western Nepal), Baikuntha Dahal, a freelance journalist, has apparently been in custody since 29 November 2001.
On 2 December 2001, Shankar Khanal, a correspondent who worked with the state owned radio station Radio Nepal and the Space Time daily, was arrested along with Ganga Bista, a correspondent with the Nepalese state owned television and local newspaper Chautari Times, and Indra Giri, a Nepal Samacharpatra correspondent in the Sankhuwasabha district (in eastern Nepal). The latter was freed four days later. During their interrogations, the two young journalists were tortured. The security forces were trying to make them reveal the names of their Maoist contacts in the district. They considered that the two journalists, who covered the rebels’ demonstrations on several occasions, should be able to give them some of the militants’ names and contacts. After members of the National Human Rights Commission visited the Sankhuwasabha district, Shankar Khanal was released on 2 March; however, as of 15 March 2002, Ganga Bista remains in custody. Speaking to Reporters without Borders, one Commission member described the prison’s living conditions as "inhuman" and the treatments inflicted by the security forces as "degrading."
On 5 December, Bin Bahadur Kunwar, a journalist with Janarajya was arrested. On that same day, Anjan Kumar Himali, a reporter working for Janagunasho was arrested. As of 10 March 2002, they are apparently still in custody, although no one knows what charges may be brought against them.
On 6 December, Sama Thapa, Editor of the local weekly Yugayan, was arrested in Tikapur (Kailai district). At the same time, Chitra Chaudhari, the Assistant Managing Editor of the local weekly Nawacharcha (published in Tikapur) and former Editor-in-Chief of Yugayan, was arrested by security forces. After being interrogated by police for several days, Mr. Chaudhari was jailed in an army barracks, while Mr. Thapa was held in the police force’s Regional Unit building.
On 13 December, Rupahendi district police arrested Dil Sahani, a journalist and member of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ). As of 10 March 2002, he was still being detained.
On 21 December, Kamal Baral, Editor of the Swaviman weekly, published in Pokhara, was arrested by members of the security forces at his home in Kaski. Several days later, soldiers arrested Janardan Biyogi, Swaviman’s Assistant Managing Editor, in Pokhara. A third Swaviman contributor, Bishwaprakash Lamichane, was arrested a few days later. As of 10 March 2002, it is believed that all three of them were still being held by Nepalese armed forces in this western district.
In the Surkhet district, two journalists were arrested at the end of December 2001. They were supposedly still in custody as of 10 March 2002. They are: Bishnu Khanal and Liladhar Gautam, reporters for Surkhet Post, a local publication. Reporters without Borders does not yet know why they are being held.
On 26 December 2001, Badri Prasad Sharma, Editor of the local weekly Baglung, was arrested in his Baglung home. Officially indicted on 18 January 2002, he has been in solitary confinement in the district prison ever since.
On 3 January 2002, security forces members questioned Hari Baral of the Bijayapur daily, published in Dharan. More than two months after his arrest, the journalist is still in jail. Bhawani Baral, who is also with Bijayapur, went underground to avoid being arrested.
On 5 January 2002, Kamal Mishra, a freelance journalist, was arrested by Indian police 40 kilometres from the border. He is presently being held by police in Siliguri (West Bengal) but no reason has been given for his imprisonment.
On 9 January 2002, Bijay Raj Acharya, Director of the private publishing house Sirjanshil Prakashan, was "abducted" by security forces and later tortured during his detention. He was freed on 19 March but must report to the police once a week.
On 23 January 2002, a journalists’ organization reported the arrest of Bishwa Raj Poudel, a Chure Sandesh journalist accused of supporting the Maoists. Since that date, authorities have disclosed no information about his case.
In the evening of 3 March 2002, a dozen individuals abducted Gopal Budhathoki, Editor of the Nepalese-language weekly Sanghu, while he was returning to his home on a motorcycle. According to several eyewitnesses, the journalist was stopped by army vehicles, despite the Prime Minister’s statement to Reporters without Borders that the armed forces had not been involved. On 6 March 2002, the Prime Minister announced that the journalist had been arrested because the newspaper had repeatedly published "fabricated" articles about the security forces for the sole purpose of "spreading rumours and demoralizing the army." According to Sanghu’s Assistant Director, interviewed by Reporters without Borders, Gopal Budhathoki had published articles about some financial irregularities related to helicopter purchases made by the Nepalese Army. The Prime Minister stated that "publishing information of this kind is equivalent to directly collaborating with the terrorists." Gopal Budhathoki, who had already been arrested by security forces on 17 December 2001, was questioned and then released 24 hours later. As of 15 March 2002, after being jailed for over 20 days (probably in an army barracks), the journalist has still not been permitted to see his wife, Ram Kala Budhathoki.
On 11 March, the latter informed Reporters without Borders: "I filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court but now we need the support of the international community to prevent other journalists from being abducted in the middle of the street by the military, like my husband was."
On 16 March 2002, Shyam Shrestha, Managing Editor of Mulyankan, a far-Left monthly, was arrested at Kathmandu International Airport while getting ready to board a flight to New Delhi, where he planned to attend a seminar. The journalist was arrested by security forces along with two human rights activists. According to the Kantipur newspaper, the journalist and his companions are now being held in solitary confinement in the capital’s Bhadrakali military camp. Mulyankan, known for publishing articles critical of the government, had been targeted by security forces for several months. The journalist’s wife has publicly denounced this State-executed "abduction."
Soldiers arrested Kumar Rawat, managing editor of the Nepalese-language monthly Mul Prabaha and the weekly Mahima, on 24 March at his home in Katmandu. Rawat is also an adviser to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists.
Another striking fact about the last four months is the growing number of raids that have been made by the police and army on local publications’ newsrooms. For example, on 16 March, the newsroom of the Naya Yugbodh daily, published in the Dang district (in western Nepal), was raided by plainclothes police. Narayan Prasad Sharma, an experienced journalist, was arrested and interrogated for an hour in an army barracks, in violation of the law prohibiting the military from participating in a civilian’s arrest or interrogation.
Arrest of twelve "Maoist" publication journalists
"My husband was just a journalist doing his job. He would leave early in the morning and work late at the office. He was never involved in politics," protested the wife of Janadisha’s Editor, Om Sharma. However, the twelve journalists and media contributors in custody, accused by the government of being Maoists, work for publications whose links with the Maoist Party are well-known. "These newspapers were nothing but mouthpieces for Maoist leaders. What they printed was pure propaganda and I am certain that they are all Maoists," accused one reporter with the Kantipur daily, who wished to remain anonymous, like many others whom we interviewed. On 28 November, an Associated Press news story specified: "For years, Nepal’s far-Left publications have been mistaking fiction for facts, rumours for truth and ideology for journalism." Other observers contend that these journalists’ pro-Maoist leanings did not automatically imply that they were party members. As one BBC stringer explained, "Some were even clandestinely criticizing the Party’s decisions. They were nonetheless very useful intermediaries for anyone needing to gain access to certain Maoist leaders."
In any event, the police have so far produced no substantial proof that these 12 individuals are actually members of the Maoist Party, which has been outlawed since 1996. According to Bishwa Kant Mainali, a lawyer who works closely with the families of imprisoned journalists, the police will settle for submitting to the special court judge a letter in which it will be stipulated that this or that individual is "guilty of terrorist activities." Explained Bishwa Kant Mainali, "Under the anti-terrorist law, we can expect every imaginable violation of legal procedures. This extraordinary legislation will preclude any normal judicial process that would permit the Court to distinguish between real Maoists and those who are innocent."
In early March of this year, 10 relatives of journalists and employees with Janadesh, Dishabodh and Janadisha confined in the same cell of Bhadragol Prison in Kathmandu, filed a writ of habeas corpus with the Supreme Court of Nepal. Assisted by a group of lawyers, the detainees’ wives, fathers and brothers demanded, as provided for under this procedure based on Anglo-Saxon law, that their relative be brought before a judge. This first legal initiative was not carried out without difficulty. First, at the end of December, the police refused to bring the Janadesh contributor, Deepak Mainali, before the court, despite the writ of habeas corpus filed on his behalf. Moreover, some relatives were subjected to actual harassment on the part of security forces and-what is even worse-Sabitree Acharya, wife of Govinda Acharya, the Janadesh journalist, was arrested by the Army in February 2002, after having filed her complaint. As of 15 March 2002, no one has had any news of her. According to lawyer Bishwa Mainali, Sabitree Acharya demonstrated "too much zeal, from the authorities’ point of view, in defending her husband’s case."
The relatives and families dread the 25th of March-the date on which Supreme Court judges are scheduled to render their verdict. On several occasions in the last few years, the police have engineered "fake releases." Following a Supreme Court ruling, prison authorities would release the prisoner, who would be taken back into custody. Furthermore, Ramnath Mainali, a lawyer working on behalf of the Janadesh weekly, was arrested in his Kathmandu home on the morning of 14 March by a dozen plainclothes members of the security force. According to Amnesty International, this lawyer, who has close ties to the Maoists, earned his reputation by successively defending Krishna Sen and Govinda Acharya, Janadesh Editors. As a result of a 2001 Supreme Court decision, Ramnath Mainali had won Krishna Sen’s release after the former had been in custody for two years. Recently, the lawyer had filed a writ of habeas corpus on behalf of Govinda Acharya, who was arrested on 26 November 2001. The soldiers who arrested Ramnath Mainali informed his relatives that he was being held at the Singha Durbar army barracks in Kathmandu.
Until such time that competent authorities have proven that these incarcerated journalists and media contributors are directly affiliated with the Maoist Party, an armed movement that has perpetrated massive violations of human rights, Reporters without Borders deems that they are being held on the grounds that they exercised their right to inform the public. Nepal, with at least 30 media professionals locked behind bars, is, without a doubt, the largest journalist jail in the world.
Torture and abusive treatment
"The police forced them to take off their clothes-then struck them and splashed them, first with hot water, then with cold water. And they did this several times a day," affirms Subodh Raj Pyakurel, General Secretary of the INSEC human rights organization, referring to the treatment of Shankar Khanal and Ganga Bista, two journalists from the Sankhuwasabha district. The wife of journalist Bijaya Raj Acharya also said: "My husband was tortured during the first two or three days of his confinement in the Balaju army barracks. His hands and feet were bound and he was given electric shocks." The police accuse the journalist of contributing to the clandestine publication of the Janadesh pro-Maoist weekly, while his relatives maintain that he only published magazines for children, primarily Srijanashil Prakashan, and far-Left literature.
Their relatives, as well as human rights activists, report that most of the journalists accused of pro-Maoist tendencies have been tortured. INSEC has compiled various testimonies from individuals tortured by the police or the military. This organization claims that the prisoners are being held in rooms that can accommodate as many as 50 men and women. Suspects must keep their head down all day long and are interrogated once a day, preferably one-by-one. They are forced to undress, after which an officer-usually a captain-is assigned to hit them with a cosh and iron bars. To make them admit that they are members of the Maoist Party, the suspects are also splashed with water. Finally, those lucky enough to be released are told that they will be killed if they testify to any of the abusive treatments that they endured in prison.
Journalists have apparently been subjected to the same treatment. For example, in early March, three journalists of allegedly "Maoist" publications were transferred for three days from their Bhadragol prison cell to a military detention centre. A fellow prisoner stated that they were "totally exhausted" when they returned. Testimonies on the subject are still somewhat vague because of the systematic restrictions imposed by prison authorities on family visits with political prisoners. The wife of one such prisoner reported that she has to fill out the same identification form three times in succession, while families of prisoners jailed for common-law offences are entitled to totally unsupervised visits with their loved one. "Military and secret service personnel listen to our conversations. My husband can say nothing to me in our short, 5- to 10-minute visits," concluded this mother of two children, who has been left without financial resources.
In addition, virtually all of the questionings were made under circumstances that were degrading for the "suspects" and were very much like actual "abductions." For example, Anuradha Poudel, a woman journalist with the daily Space Time, was arrested in her home in the night of 19 January 2002. Policemen and soldiers tied her hands and blindfolded her, and then led her away to a police station while her husband and son watched. The journalist, an expert on environmental issues, endured several interrogations that night before the police realized that they had arrested the wrong person. Likewise, Kishor Shreshtha, Managing Editor of the Jana Aastha weekly, was subjected to intense psychological pressures by the police officers who interrogated him for more than 20 hours on 29 January 2002.
However, lawyer Bishwa Mainali reminded Reporters without Borders that journalists and lawyers are treated much more favourably than other terrorist suspects: "When a lawyer is arrested, his colleagues protest. When a journalist is arrested, the news circulates within press circles and such international organizations as Reporters without Borders. They are protected from extra-judicial executions and disappearances. But who will defend a poor peasant or provincial school teacher?"