by Chiranjibi Paudyal
American Reporter Correspondent
October 29, 2003
MURDER, VIOLENCE AND CONSPIRACY CRUSH PRESS FREEDOMS IN NEPAL
KATHMANDU, Nepal, Oct. 26, 2003 -- Gyanendra Khadka, a journalist working for the National News Agency of Nepal, had his throat slashed by a group of Maoists. As his wife begged for the life of her husband, the rebels slashed his throat on a Buddhist altar.
Khadka, a stringer for the news agency in the town of Chautara in the Sindhupalchowk district of eastern Nepal, got only a nominal payment for his writing. Writing was his crime, for which he was killed in front of his wife and children in broad daylight. No one was arrested for his killing and there was no compensation from the government.
This is not the only such incident in Nepal. Many journalists have been killed and tortured both by the government and the Maoists. Their only crime has been writing against the interests of the government or the Maoists.
Last year, Nepal was declared the worst country in the world for journalists, one where over 130 reporters and editors were arrested; some were murdered. The country is notorious as the most predatory towards journalists anywhere on the planet.
Ironiocally, Nepal's consideration for freedom of the press had been exemplary since the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990. But there was always question mark about the responsibility of the media. Ironically, alhough Nepal's media was largely irresponsible and out of favior with most people before the restoration of democracy, journalists were safe from attack even under the undemocratic regimes of the past.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said "after the outbreak of political conflict, violence against journalists is on the rise across Nepal. Journalists working in hostile regions are the victims of constant threats and intimidation from all sides. Weekly we learn of the difficulties and dangers faced by journalists as more cases of harassment, threats, violence and even killings of journalists are reported."
According to information from Federation of Nepalese journalists (FNJ), 42 journalists have been detained since the peace talks broke down in August 2003. At least three have been prosecuted and five tortured. On the Maoist side, one journalist was killed and two others were kidnapped, while death warrants have been issued against many others. The well-being of five journalists who vanished in the past year is still unknown.
Understandably, in this climate, fear has spread throughout the journalistic community.
"Bearing this in mind we strongly condemn the ongoing excesses against journalists, call on both sides of the conflict to respect the work of journalists and the right of the Nepalese people to information and to freedom of expression," a statement issued last week by the journalists' unions of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka stated.
"At this time of conflict and stress, it is critical that our communities have access to the truth that enables them to understand and control their lives and participate in the democratic process," the IFJ said.
And the International Media Organization released a statement recently, saying "Violent conflict and political upheaval, by their nature, raise tempers and build barriers to understanding. But the value of communication to conflict resolution is obvious and we call on all sides to respect the unique role journalists have to play."
Media freedom has vanished since last year's royal palace massacre. Three media personnel, including the editor of a major daily newspaper, Kantipur Yuba Raj Ghimire, were arrested on charges of publishing an article about the Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai. Many people were surprised that the publication of the article had nothing to do with the editor. This was the beginning of the arrest of the journalists.
The then-Home Minister said, "I had no information about the arrest," and police officials who arrested him said "It was the order of above." Generally, that phrase means the royal palace. The concerned minister, a freedom fighter, could not save the editor from being arrested. "It clearly shows how Nepal is being ruled," he said.
"Royal palace, army and the Maoists are the major threat of freedom of the press in Nepal," said a senior editor working for the government news media. It was the royal palace that started the tradition of threatening the press when it published something perceived to be against their interests.
"Now there are Maoists replacing that tradition," he said. "We cannot safeguard freedom of the press without democratic system," he said, adding "the situation does not seem favorable for democracy and press freedom."
There are threats from both the government and the Maoists, said Tara Nath Dahal, president of the Federation of Nepalese journalists, an apex body of the Nepalese journalists.
"There are multi pronged problems in the Nepalese press. First, most of the journalists themselves are not qualified and aware of their responsibilities. Most of the journalists who claim to be senior have no idea of the norms of the media and even do not know how to write news. They were made journalists during the Panchayat system under the direct rule of the King until before 1990. They were politically motivated journalists who claim to be senior because of their age but not experience. if you tell these so called journalists occupying prestigious posts in media, to write or edit a piece of news, they cannot do so," said a working journalist.
Those who can speak English and have contact with professional media organizations outside the country are doing their business in the name of journalism. Take the example of Nepal Press Institute and Media Service International. Nepalese journalists question their contribution to Nepalese media.
"They have contact outside Nepal and speak English so that they have been able to earn dollar," said a former director of the Institute.
Most of the journalists working on weekly and other periodicals are not qualified. They were made journalists by the government during the previous system, but became able to get lucrative jobs even after the restoration of democracy. These journalists claim to be "senior" because of their age, and they occupy important posts in the media. How, then, can you expect the promotion of media freedoms in Nepal,journalists ask.
The press has other difficulties. There are the constants of political influence, lack of qualification and training, and the absence of commitment to freedom of the press. There is unfair competition among the media companies.
In Nepal, the media is divided and guided by political and business purposes. The government media is totally controlled by the government and there is no freedom to write, while the private media is run for powerful business interests. This unethical division of media cannot safeguard free press.
"Read the headlines of the newspapers, especially the weeklies. Then you can see how democratic and responsible the Nepalese press is," said David Queen, a former American diplomat.
Only two out of the nine broadsheet daily newspapers here in the cpaital of Neopal covered the global story of the royal palace massacre. The incident occur at around 8 in the evening in the heart of Kathmandu, but most of the daily newspapers failed to mention the incident the next day.
"This is because of the fear to write news; it was about the royal palace massacre and was difficult to carry," said the Editor-in-Chief of a daily newspaper on condition of anonymity. The government news media do not work in accordance with the interests of the people and their business interests guide the private media. How can there be the free press in such environment?"
Reporters Without Borders called on the Nepalese government to put a stop to a wave of deadly violence that has targeted journalists since the country's pro-Maoist Communist Party rebels ended a ceasefire on August 27.
"We are very worried about the increasing attacks on media workers by both government and rebel forces which threaten the free flow of news," said the press freedom organization's secretary-general, Robert Menard, in a letter to Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa.
"Journalists are protected in wartime by the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention, which considers them civilians, and the arbitrary arrest, killing and kidnapping of them are serious violations of international humanitarian law," he said.
"There is torture, detention, threat and murder in Nepali media. We need support of the international community for the protection of the media freedom in Nepal, said Taranath Dahal, president of the FNJ."
American Reporter Correspondent Chiranjibi Paudyal visited the United States in 1999 as a Journalism Fellow of the United States Information Agency. He currently heads the National News Agency of Nepal.