by Chiranjibi Paudyal
American Reporter Correspondent
August 18, 2002
NEPAL LEADS THE WORLD IN NUMBER OF IMPRISONED JOURNALISTS
KATHMANDU, Nepal, Aug. 18, 2002 -- Nepal's press freedom, restored with the establishment of democracy in 1990, has been endangered since the imposition of the state of emergency to crush Maoist violence last November, Nepali journalists told The American Reporter.
Nepalese journalists fighting for the freedom of the press, which is guaranteed by the Himalayan kingdom's democratic constitution, marched in a silent lantern and candlelight procession in Kathmandu on Friday, many carrying posters with slogans such as, "Let journalists live and write freely."
Since last November, Nepal has become the country with the highest number of journalists in prison: over 120 journalists have been arrested here since the declaration of the state of emergency, and at least 34 are still in detention. Among them, the whereabouts of about one dozen of the journalists is still not known, according to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ).
At the demosntration, hundreds of journalists took lantern and candles in their hands and marched around the ancient city to tell the public that freedom of press for many of them has been lost.
Demonstrations and the chanting of slogans is banned in Nepal by the state of emergency decree.
"The government is deaf and dumb and does not listen our grievances so we have to launch programs to pressure the government for freedom of the press," said Tara Nath Dahal, president of the journalists' group.
The government has said that the emergency is only targeted at Maoists and the newspapers affiliated with them. It has also urged the journalists not to publish any news, articles, photos and features that encourage the Maoists and terrorism.
"The security forces will investigate and release those who are not involved in the terrorists' activities," Nepal's minister for information and communications Jaya Prakash Gupta said in Kathmandu recently.
"Despite the minister's assurances the press has to suffer," answered the general secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, Bishnu Nishthuri. "What will compel the government to make public the whereabouts of the arrested journalists?"
International journalists' organizations and human rights groups have strongly condemned the government's actiona against journalists and urged it to release those arrested.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Reporters Sans Frontieres have written to Nepalese prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to release the arrested journalists and afford them freedom to the press in accordance with a provision of the constitution of Nepal.
All the newspapers that support the Maoists have been banned and the journalists affiliated with the rebels have been arrested. The FNJ has said that it is not demanding the release of Maoists rebels but the journalists arrested after the imposition of the state of emergency.
"If the government says that those arrested were not journalists and they were Maoists, we have nothing to say, but the government should make that clear," Dahal said.
Local media reported that Krishna Sen, editor of the Janadesh weekly, a paper said to support the Maoists, was killed in custody recently. Sen was arrested with four other people with alleged Maoist affiliations in Kathmandu, but the home ministry, which is like America's FBI, has denied that government forces arrested Sen.
"Sen is a wanted terrorist and we have fixed a prize of Rs. 2.5 million (about $35,000 dollars) for those helping to arrest him alive or dead," said a home ministry statement. But local and international media organizations and human rights organizations have criticized the government for that announcement.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and Paris-based Reporters San Frontiers have sent letters to the Nepalese government demanding that it make public the whereabouts of the missing journalists, including Sen.
The FNJ has been waging a campaign for the restoration of freedom of the press for the last two months. The protests have included a boycott of the prime minister, cabinet ministers and other government officials' news releases and an absence of editorial coverage.
"Our programs have been very successful but the government does not listen. The government is deaf and dumb, and what it is doing anti-democratic and against freedom of the press. Therefore, we have launched our programs very effectively and are pressuring the government to restore freedom of the press," the president said.
The media is divided in Nepal. The government runs newspapers and most of the newspapers are affiliated with political parties. Despite that, most journalists are now united in fighting for press freedom. Political parties and intellectuals have also criticized the government saying that the government is misusing the government-owned media.
Television, radio and the national news agency - the only news agency in Nepal - are under the control of the government, and two daily newspapers including the oldest, the English daily "The Rising Nepal," is also under the control of the government.
"Nepal's press was free and it was more free than other democratic countries. I think there is the need of responsible press," a diplomat of a major donor country told the American Reporter.
"Press freedom cannot be curtailed in a democratic society," the diplomat added.
The government charges that newspapers have freedom but are not responsible to society. their credibility is in question because it is a well-known fact gere that due to the division within the political realm, the newspaper industry is also divided and individual newspapers serve as mouthp[ieces for political parties.
With the restoration of democracy, the press will also moving towards the path of responsibility. It takes time but it all turns out right in the end, said a top editor at a daily newspaper published in Kathmandu.
The government has frustrated the development of the Nepali press and it will take time to flourish here to fully realize the freedom promised by the nation's constitution, he says.
"Curtailing press freedom is to end the democratic values and norms and the government is doing that," said the editor of another government media outlet, on condition of anonymity.
Voices are also being raised on behalf of freedom for the government's Radio Nepal, the only effective medium of news and information that reaches even the people of the remote and mountainous districts of the country.
Radio Nepal is a powerful voice in many remote villages, where there is no access to television or newspapers and most people can not read or write. Around 40 percent of Nepal's population is illiterate, and illiteracy is very high in the rtemote and hilly areas where the Maoists have their strongest support.
After the establishment of democracy in 1980, the press became free and various forms of media, including newspapers, FM radio, and television have been mushrooming.
"The government should distinguish between the Maoist terrorists and press freedom, which are quite different subjects. Press freedom should not be curtailed in any manner," said a diplomat of the influential donor embassy in Kathmandu.
American Reporter Correspondent Chiranjibi Paudyal heads the Nepalese News Agency in Kathmandu.