Nepal | 24.04.2002

Nepal annual report 2002

 

The massacre of the royal family, in June 2001, led to the first serious crisis between the private press and the government. Three directors of the main Nepalese daily Kantipur were arrested and accused of "sedition" after publishing comments by the Maoist leader about the king’s death. But this first attempt to take over the press failed because of national and international mobilisation. After the breakdown of talks between authorities and Maoists, in November, and the declaration of a state of emergency, the government imposed censorship and began an unprecedented wave of arrests: at least fifty-three media professionals were held for short or long periods. Even more serious, journalists working for pro-Maoist publications were detained in secret and their families were afraid to ask for writs of habeas corpus. The army demanded to verify articles before they were published and imposed a news blackout on the conflict: journalists were expelled from combat areas and publications began censoring themselves. In a speech to the country the day after the state of emergency was declared, the Prime Minister said, "I ask the entire population, and especially those working in the media, to support us in this difficult time for all, when the nation is being held hostage by a handful of terrorists." The press accepted this state of emergency and the "total war" launched against the Maoist movement without making many comments. It took more than a month before the first criticism appeared on the way the media were covering the conflict.

But private press was growing fast in the country. There are more than fifteen hundred publications recorded, the country’s leading dailies have regional editions, and there are some fifteen private radio stations, even though they do not broadcast much news.

The decision of the dogmatic and violent Communist Party of Nepal (CPN, a banned Maoist party) to break the truce and cut off negotiations led to this escalation of fighting. The army seems to have the upper hand over the unprepared guerrillas, but the problems of corruption, poverty and nepotism that have helped make the "comrades" successful, will not be resolved by military victory. The press must fulfil its role in the balance of power.

Fifty-three journalists jailed

On 15 March 2001, Krishna Sen, editor-in-chief of the pro-Maoist weekly Janadesh, was freed after a Supreme Court decision. He was arrested on 19 April 1999 and detained by virtue of the Public Security Act. Nepalese authorities accused him of publishing, in his pro-Maoist newspaper, an interview with one of the leaders of this movement, Baburam Bhattarai. On 10 March, he was released a first time, then "kidnapped" by police. But protests by the courts and human rights organisations forced the police to release him. Afraid of being arrested again, Krishna Sen went underground.

Another journalist close to the Maoist movement is still in jail as of 1 January 2002. Amar Budha of the weekly Yojana was arrested in April 1999. He is believed to be held in Gaighat Prison.

The young pro-Maoist journalist Milan Nepali has been missing since May 1999. He was arrested in Kathmandu, but the police have always denied that they had him in custody. In late 1999, a Nepalese officer told representatives of human rights organisations that Milan Nepali was on a list of those who were "no longer alive". His family still has no news about him.

On 6 June, Yubraj Ghimire, Binod Gyawali and Kailash Sirohiya, respectively editor, publisher and managing director of the main Nepalese daily Kantipur, were arrested in the newspaper’s offices in Kathmandu. Binod Gyawali and Kailash Sirohiya also publish the English edition of this newspaper, the Kathmandu Post. They were driven to the Hanuman Dhoka police station in an unmarked vehicle. The three journalists were charged with "sedition" and "treason against the monarchy" for publishing, on the Opinion page of Kantipur an article written by Barburam Bhattarai, one of the leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal. In this article, Bhattarai rejected the newly crowned king, Gayendra, calling him a "puppet of Indian expansionist forces". Several days earlier, a minister had warned the Nepalese press against "erroneous" coverage of the massacre of the royal family that occurred on 1 June. On 12 June, the court heard testimony from the three journalists and declared that they would remain in jail until 15 June, when the government would have to file formal charges. They were facing three years in jail. But on 15 June, the three journalists were released on bail. Yuvraj Ghimire, an experienced journalist, regretted that the court did not drop the charges against them and said that he would continue to fight to prove their innocence. "Our victory will be a victory for press freedom," he declared outside the court after the hearing. Four days earlier, more than three hundred journalists and foreign correspondents had demonstrated in the Nepalese capital to protest the detention of their colleagues. On 17 August, the Nepalese government announced that the sedition charges against the editor and his two colleagues had been dropped. The Minister of Information said, "The government wants to develop a relationship of confidence with the media and has no intention of curtailing press freedom." He added that criticism of the repression against the Nepalese press, which appeared in national and international media after this affair, had an effect on the decision to release the journalists.

On 26 November, police arrested ten journalists and assistants with pro-Maoist media in their offices in Kathmandu. They were Govinda Acharya, Khil Bahadur Bhandari, Dipak Sapkota, Dipendra Sapkota and Rambhakta Maharjan, respectively editor-in-chief, managing editor, journalist, editorial assistant and typesetter with the weekly Janadesh; Ishwor Chandra Gyawali, Manarishi Dhital and Nim Bahadur Budhatoki, respectively managing editor, employee and typesetter with the magazine Disabodh; Om Sharma and Dipak Mainali, respectively editor-in-chief and typesetter with the daily Janadisha. Police also seized printing equipment and documents. These journalists were accused of supporting the CPN. More than one month after their arrest, their families learned that they were being held in Bhadragol Prison outside of Kathmandu, after being first held in police buildings near the Maharajgunj police academy in Kathmandu. Several witnesses say that they were beaten during questioning and were held in poor conditions. The ten men should have been presented to a judge within twenty-four hours of their arrest, but police refused. In addition, late December, the authorities did not present Dipak Mainali before a judge even though his lawyer had asked for a writ of habeas corpus. Following these arrests, pro-Maoist publications were no longer published. Dozens of journalists, especially those with Janadesh, Disabodh and Janadisha, went underground. Prakash Adhikari, managing editor of Deshantar, has been hiding since the police went to his home to arrest him.

On 29 November, police arrested thirty-eight journalists in Butwal (west of the country), during a party given by the press group that publishes the daily Jana Sangarsha. Local representatives of the public TV channel Nepal Television and the governmental press agency Nepal News Agency were released several hours later. Local officials released thirty-four journalists on 4 December. However, Basanta Pokharel, management consultant with Jana Sangarsha, and Dolaram Ghimire, managing editor of the local daily Mechi Kali, were still not released as of the end of December.

On 26 December, Chandra Man Shrestha, managing editor of the daily Janadisha, was arrested after police had been looking for him for several weeks. He was taken to Bhadragol Prison and held with the ten other pro-Maoist journalists already jailed. On 26 December, police also arrested Badri Prasad Sharma, managing editor of the weekly Baglung in Besishar (west of the country).

Thirty-two journalists arrested

On 15 July 2001, police arrested twenty-four journalists in Dang district (west of the country) as they were going to Rolpa to cover the activities of Maoist rebels. They were released the same day.

On 7 September, Yagya Bikram Shahi, correspondent with the daily Kantipur in Nepalgunj (west), Kashi Ram Dangi, correspondent with the daily Kantipur in Rolpa (west), Rajaram Gautam, journalist with the bimonthly Nepal, Nishchal Chapagain, photographer, Sudhir Sharma, reporter with the bimonthly Himal, and Ghanshyam Acharya, human rights activist in Rolpa, were arrested by Maoist militants who control the Rolpa region. The journalists were held for three days.

On the afternoon of 17 December, plainclothes police arrested Gopal Budhathoki, managing editor of the Nepalese-language weekly Sanghu, and Bandhu Thapa, managing editor of the weekly Deshantar, at their homes in Kathmandu. The two managing editors were questioned about the publication of two articles considered "reprehensible". Sanghu had published excerpts from a communiqué by the leader of the Maoist rebels. Deshantar had revealed that tensions existed between the king and the Prime Minister concerning the state of emergency. Gopal Budhathoki and Bandhu Thapa were released on the evening of 18 December.

On 27 December, Bijay Prasad Mishra, reporter with the daily Kantipur in Siraha (four hundred km. south-east of the capital), was arrested for writing an article about the arrest of pro-Maoist journalists. The journalist was released the following day after the Association of Nepalese Journalists filed an official protest.

One journalist attacked

On 26 June 2001, Min Bajracharya, a press photographer, was attacked by activists while covering a demonstration of the Maoist party in Kathmandu.

Pressure and obstruction

On 16 January 2001, the Minister of Information and Communication sent a letter to the directors of the country’s eleven private radio stations, notifying them that they would no longer be permitted to broadcast their own news. The minister made this decision on 2 January, but some members of the government were reportedly opposed to it, which delayed its application. The directive states that radio stations will only be allowed to broadcast news from government sources and will have to send their reports, at least one week before their broadcast, to the Ministry of Information and Communication for approval. Finally, private radio stations must have a board of directors of at least three people, one of them from the Ministry of Information and Communication. This decision was made a few weeks after riots during which five people were killed and which, according to the authorities, were amplified by the press. The Minister accused the Space Time Daily of publishing an article - on a minor incident in the south of the country - which allegedly sparked off demonstrations in the entire country against Indian interests. The managing editor of the newspaper was questioned by the Chief District Officer (CDO) of Kathmandu District. After this decision, Radio Sagarmatha broadcast the programmes of the Nepalese service of the BBC as usual, but informed its listeners that these news programmes might be modified because of the governmental decision. On 17 January, a parliamentary commission asked the Minister to give additional information, within a week, on the reasons for this decision. On 24 January, this same commission demanded that the government suspend the decision. It was not until 28 July that the Supreme Court cancelled the government directive opposing restrictions on FM radios.

In late April, the Ministry of Information and Communication prevented the private media group Space Time Network (STN) from extending its activities to the broadcasting of its programmes via the Thai Com satellite. STN, already a cable television operator and publisher of a free daily, planned to broadcast programmes starting 14 April after signing a business agreement with Thai Com. STN was due to cover fifty-two countries and be received by Nepalese living outside the country. Two days before the launch of the broadcast, the ministry asked STN to provide a complete list of broadcasting equipment used. Since then, the ministry has not provided the authorisation required for broadcasting. Jamim Shah, managing director of STN, expressed his surprise regarding this obstruction decided two days before the launch while the event had been announced a month earlier. A few weeks later, the parliamentary Communication and Development Commission asked the minister to make a rapid decision.

After the crown prince killed the king and his family on 1 June, the government and the royal family did everything they could to block coverage of this incident. After refusing to provide the press with information on the circumstances surrounding the murder of the king and his family, authorities accused witnesses of the massacre who spoke to journalists of "treason". When the international press claimed that the crown prince was behind the massacre, Nepalese media did not publish this information, fearing sanctions. On 12 June, the ministry of Information announced that foreign journalists would have to have special accreditation to cover stories dealing with this massacre, and asked the media to "stop publishing false, fallacious and unconfirmed information". After the international press had published many stories contradicting the official version, that a gun went off accidentally, the government gradually revealed what really happened.

On 27 June, police officers searched the offices of Paru Offset Printing Press in Kathmandu. They seized all copies of the pro-Maoist monthly Disabodh because it had published an interview with a leader of the Maoist Party.

On 3 September, two PCN activists went to the offices of the daily Kantipur in Kathmandu, to see Kailash Sirohiya, managing director, and Binod Raj Gyawali, managing editor, asking them to pay the revolutionary tax of 400,000 Nepalese rupees (approx. 6,000 euros), to support the Maoist Party’s struggle.

On 26 November, the Ministry of Information banned the publication of information "susceptible to favour and provoke violent or terrorist activities". The next day, the army asked journalists to have their articles and photographs vetted by them before publishing. The State set up a system to control information and incite the press to denounce the Maoists’ "criminal activities". Finally, the government required media to publish official news, especially that which praised the "courage and efficiency of the army and civil servants". Several observers say that Nepalese media only report a small part of what is really occurring in this conflict. Out of fear of reprisals, most of the press merely publishes figures provided by the Ministry of Defence. But on 21 December, the President of the Nepalese Journalists’ Federation denounced the control of information and said that Ministry of Defence press releases were not at all "credible". The experienced journalist M. Kharel denounced the self-censorship practiced by many publications. "If the government or the Ministry of Defence give out information, journalists should verify this rather than just publishing what they are given. The press should not be afraid of the state of emergency. Now is the time to show the nation its real identity," he added.

On 15 December, the government ordered Nepalese and foreign journalists to leave areas where fighting was occurring between the army and the Maoists. The following day, Tilak Pokharel, journalist with the Kathmandu Post, and a group of journalists with Kantipur, received an order to immediately leave Dang Valley (west of the country) where they were covering army operations against the Maoist guerrillas. Three officers went to their hotel and told them that an order had come from the capital to expel all journalists in these areas. Indian and Italian television crews were also asked to leave this area.

On 16 December, security forces in the remote Panchthar district (east of the country) blocked the distribution of the main national and local daily newspapers.

On 27 December, police searched the Nepal Chapakhana printers in Kathmandu, which prints the pro-Maoist publication Janadesh.

On 31 December, Pushkar Lal Shrestha and Kapil Kafle, respectively editor and managing editor of the Nepalese-language daily Nepal Samacharpatra, were questioned for more than two hours by Kathmandu authorities after publishing a communiqué from the leader of the CPN. The Maoist leader recognised that the influence of his movement in cities had strongly decreased since the beginning of the state of emergency. The authorities threatened Pushkar Lal Shrestha with legal action for publishing this document written by a "terrorist leader".

   
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