The brutal murder in January 2009 of young Nepali journalist Uma Singh has drawn much attention in Nepal and globally, highlighting the extreme risks for media personnel as Nepal makes its difficult transition to democracy after a decade of civil war.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) conducted an investigation into Uma Singh’s murder in Janakpur, as well as issues concerning regional media and women working in journalism in Nepal, as part of its participation in an international press freedom mission to Nepal in February 2009.
On the evidence, the IFJ concludes there are strong links between Uma Singh’s murder and her professional work as a journalist in investigating the wrongful expropriation of land during Nepal’s decade-long insurgency.
The IFJ, with its affiliates the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), the Nepal Press Union (NPU) and the National Union of Journalists Nepal (NUJ-N), calls on government authorities take all appropriate action to bring Uma Singh’s murderers to justice and to end the culture of impunity regarding violence against the media across Nepal.
Below is the IFJ’s full report of its investigation into the murder of Uma Singh.
The Murder of Uma Singh and the Status of Journalism in Nepal’s Terai
A young woman journalist, Uma Singh, was murdered in one of the most traumatic manifestations of the new turbulence in the media environment in Nepal. The year 2009 has got off to a rocky start for journalists all over the world and South Asia in particular. Uma Singh’s killing was one of the most tragic occurrences of this very troubled period.
Uma Singh, aged in her mid-20s, was a broadcast and print journalist working in Janakpur town of Dhanusha district in the southern plains of Nepal, known as the Terai. Late evening on January 11, 2009, her modest rented room was raided by a group of about 15 men. She was dragged out onto the veranda and brutally hacked. Nobody from the three dwelling units that share the same veranda thought anything untoward was going on, till the marauders left the compound with unseemly shouts of joy. Uma Singh was found mortally wounded, barely able to speak, as she was transported by motorcycle to the nearest hospital. She died within an hour.
Early in February 2009, a representative of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) visited Janakpur to inquire into the state of the investigation into the murder of Uma Singh and to assess public perceptions about this and other issues of concern. The visit took place following an announcement by the Nepali political authorities that the murder was related to a property dispute, and Uma Singh was killed because she allegedly had the title to a large part of the family’s assets, mainly land.
However, the IFJ found that Uma Singh’s work as a journalist, in particular her significant investigative reporting on the wrongful expropriation of land during Nepal’s decade-long insurgency, was a major factor behind her murder.
In Janakpur, the IFJ met with Sonia Muller-Rappard, representative of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and later with Shambhu Koirala, the Chief District Officer (CDO), and Yadav Raj Khanal, Superintendent of Police (SP).
Muller-Rappard informed the IFJ that the OHCHR’s mandate to investigate the murder would apply only if Uma Singh’s killing was related to her work as a journalist, since the UN recognises journalists as human rights defenders. This meant that the office could not investigate the murder if it was proved to be a criminal case involving a dispute within the family over property, or any other such matter. Preliminary inquiries by the OHCHR had reportedly not been able to establish a link between Uma Singh’s work as a journalist and her killing. The OHCHR was unsure whether its jurisdiction was really invoked, since the circumstances under which the murder was committed and its motives remained unclear.
On the basis of its inquiries and interviews, the IFJ believes that this element of confusion about the motives for the murder of Uma Singh, though inherent in the situation, is easily dispelled. Property issues and familial rivalries were undoubtedly part of the reason that Uma Singh was killed. But there is little question that her work as a journalist and the investigative reporting she had done on the expropriation of land in the Teraiwas a major reason for her killing.
The CDO and the SP, both of whom spoke candidly and at length, concur in the assessment that Uma Singh’s outspoken nature as a journalist had a great deal to do with her death.
Uma Singh’s father and brother had disappeared in 2007 from their home village in the district of Siraha, adjoining Dhanusha. The belief in virtually all sections within Janakpur is that the Maoists were behind their abduction. Few, including the family, retain hope that the two men will be found alive since they are believed to have been murdered within days of their disappearance. This dark deed occurred after the popular mass upsurge of 2006 compelled the then king of Nepal to reinstate the national parliament and cede powers to a coalition of political parties, but before a formal ceasefire agreement took effect to end the country’s decade-long Maoist insurgency.
Since Uma Singh’s family is a relatively well-to-do land-owning family, there is a strong suspicion that the motive for the two men’s “disappearance” may have been land. Uma Singh left her home town shortly after this family trauma to go to Janakpur. She had the skills, the commitment and courage for journalism and joined Janakpur Today, a media group that prints a daily newspaper and runs a local FM station.
In her journalism, Uma Singh began to document extensively several instances of land-grabbing by Maoist cadres. With the ceasefire and the transition to a democratic government, there has been considerable public pressure building for returning seized land to prior owners. This is deemed an essential part of the process of national reconciliation in Nepal, until lawful land reforms are instituted. The Maoist-led national government, formally committed to national reconciliation, has issued necessary directives for the return of expropriated land. But it has often proved unable or unwilling to enforce its writ on local cadres.
In an article in the Nepali language monthly Sarokar in October 2008, published in English translation on the website www.dainikee.com on January 6, 2009, five days before she was murdered, Uma Singh reported: “The Maoists have not returned the seized land in Siraha district even three months after Maoist chairman and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal directed his party cadres to do so. Some 1,200 bigahas of land captured during the People’s War is still under Maoist control.”
She followed with a detailed cataloguing of land seizures and an enumeration of the people affected by property expropriation. The intent of her campaigning journalism was clear: To render justice to all people in Siraha and Dhanusha districts in particular and the Terairegion in general who had been dispossessed and displaced on account of land seizures.
In the same article, Uma Singh named a powerful person from the Maoist political hierarchy in the Terai, now alienated from the party because of tactical and strategic differences. This leader had, she reported, defied central directives from his party and the cabinet and persisted with forcible land expropriation. He was unwilling to adapt to the realities of the ceasefire and the new democratic compact in Nepal.
Seemingly taking his appointment to the key Ministry of Land Reforms as the sanction for unilateral decisions, this individual had been mobilising disadvantaged sections in the Terai in large numbers to forcibly seize and resettle land. This had earned him the ire of his ministerial colleagues in Kathmandu, particularly those tasked with running the Ministry of Home Affairs, which looks after law and order. The Land Reforms Minister would brook no opposition, ignoring directives from the Prime Minister and the cabinet that he cease his campaign.
With a number of interviews and first-hand accounts to buttress her reporting, Uma Singh wrote that this political campaign of forcible land seizure was motivated by fairly mundane calculations. Far from altruism, it was in fact extortion. Indeed, the individuals and families that had been paying out the sums of money demanded by the guerrilla turned minister had been able to hold off the threat of land confiscation.
From the information available, the motivation for Uma Singh’s murder seems to have been her journalism, which consistently took up the issue of restitution of illicit land seizures. Uma Singh was also fearless and outspoken in her reporting on the operations of the numerous armed groups that had sprouted in the Teraisince the end of the insurgency, which were using the proximity of the Indian border as an easy cover, while wreaking havoc with civilian life.
The problems that women journalists faced were Uma Singh’s special focus and she was, through her commitment and courage, an example for many younger women who chose to enter journalism after the 2006 transition to democracy. A video clip of Uma Singh talking about the problems posed by armed groups in the Terai and the difficulties faced by women journalists is available at http://myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=1029
The preponderance of evidence suggests a direct link between Uma Singh’s journalism and her murder. Though there is no denying that she may have had a personal stake in the issue of land seizures, her journalism was exercised in the larger public interest and it served the cause of all those who had been dispossessed and displaced.
Appropriately, the arrests that have been made in connection with Uma Singh’s murder have drawn attention both in Nepal and outside. Five individuals are currently in detention awaiting charges: Lalita Devi Singh, Nemlal Paswan, Shraban Yadav, Bimlesh Jha and Abhishek Singh.
Lalita Devi Singh, sister-in-law of the murdered woman (wife of the brother of Uma Singh who disappeared in 2007) is allegedly a key conspirator. Her arrest has been made on the evidence of the number of telephone calls she made prior to the murder to Umesh alias “Swami” Yadav. Following the murder, police say, there was two days of silence, after which there is a resumption of frequent telephonic contact.
Umesh Yadav is still evading arrest and is believed to be in the neighbouring district of Sitamarhi in India. He is known to have a criminal record. A former functionary of the Maoist party – now formally known as the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), or UCPN(M) – he broke away to join forces with the Jwala Singh group, one of the many armed factions professedly fighting for the rights of the Madhesis(plains dwellers) against what they see as the disproportionate power wielded by the hill Nepalis (or the Paharis). Umesh Yadav then formed the Terai Ekta Parishad, which is committed to the same goals.
Shraban Yadav, also under arrest, is a district-level activist of the UCPN(M). Police believe he was almost certainly involved in the disappearance and suspected murder of Uma Singh’s father and brother. Inquiries by the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), an IFJ affiliate, have shown that Lalita Devi Singh perhaps drew close to Shraban Yadav in the days and months that followed in an effort to secure his assistance in tracing her missing husband. The district police, though, tend to believe that Lalita Devi Singh had an association with Shraban Yadav from before that time.
Shraban Yadav was until his arrest a local leader in good standing of the UCPN(M). Political passions were aroused on the day of his arrest and tensions ran high for a while. The east-west highway through the Terai, which is Nepal’s main artery of communication, was blocked for a while. But tensions abated when the authorities explained that the arrest was in connection with Uma Singh’s murder. Public awareness about the heinous crime had been awakened thanks mainly to the campaign of protests and agitation that the FNJ led in the Teraiand other parts of Nepal. The goal of justice for Uma Singh was one widely shared among all sections of opinion in the region.
Shraban Yadav’s motive for allegedly participating in the killing is reportedly his desire to efface evidence of his alleged involvement in the disappearance of Uma Singh’s father and brother. Lalita Devi Singh had an interest in gaining control of the share of the family property that would otherwise have gone to Uma Singh. Since Uma Singh’s journalism was a severe encumbrance to the Maoist cadres that had been active in land seizures through the years of the insurgency and after, her elimination was an outcome that some of them might have actively sought.
Of the others who have been detained, Nemlal Paswan and Abhishek Singh are known criminal elements, with several indictments against them. And Bimlesh Jha is believed to have been the party activist of the Terai Ekta Parishad who faxed its claim of responsibility for the murder to local media offices.
The Media Environment
At interactions with the media community in Janakpur, the IFJ learnt that professional morale had been severely dented by Uma Singh’s murder. There is a strong sense of professional pride within the journalists’ community over the rapid strides that the media has made in the area. Dhanusha reportedly has the largest number of FM broadcast stations and newspapers among all Nepal’s districts. Yet journalists are angry and frustrated about the level of impunity for those responsible for killing, kidnapping, and threatening journalists. In the year before the murder, there had been two cases of journalists being brutally attacked in Janakpur. In the more serious of these, a local freelance journalist, Manoj Sah, suffered a near lethal assault on January 16, 2008, in retaliation for an article he wrote exposing rampant corruption in one of the town’s prominent religious trusts. This attack, as also another on print and broadcast journalist Brij Kumar Yadav, have not been investigated to this date.
Women Journalists in the Terai
Women journalists did not attend the meeting with the IFJ since it was held late in the evening. It was not considered safe for women to venture out after dark.
In fact, young women who work into the late hours in various radio stations often stay the night at work. At a separate meeting with a group of 11 women journalists on February 6, the IFJ was able to gather some sense of how profound was the sense of loss inflicted by Uma Singh’s murder. The explosion in FM broadcasting in Nepal had provided ample opportunities for younger women to enter journalism. Most channels function for 18 to 20 hours a day, typically shutting down only briefly between midnight and the early waking hours. Most women journalists function both as reporters and as news and talk-show anchors. Some of them report lower salaries than men of equivalent experience and educational background, the reason ostensibly being that they are not able to work at night. Mobility is another issue and women journalists have to move about on bicycles or use public transport to access news spots and other areas of interest.
Several participants at the meeting knew Uma Singh personally. Many ran special programs after her murder to commemorate her life and work. They report that most of the callers-in on the talk shows that they ran were women, who obviously felt Uma Singh’s murder more deeply than did male listeners.
Most women reported intense pressures from their families to give up journalism and settle for relatively low-risk professions such as teaching. Indeed, there have been credible reports since early February that many women have indeed dropped out of the profession.
Impact of Political Instability
The outbreak of serious discord in the Teraiover issues of “indigenous” peoples’ rights against those of the settlers from the hills has taken a toll on media freedom. A senior and highly respected journalist, Ramesh Ghimire, who has been active in Janakpur for 48 years, now faces constant threats from activists of the various Madhesi groups that have sprouted in the Teraisince the end of the Maoist insurgency.
Ghimire, who is the editor and publisher of the Dhanusha weekly, faces constant questions from anonymous callers, such as why he is running a Nepali language publication in the Terairegion, which is ostensibly the exclusive domain of another linguistic community. At a meeting with the IFJ, Ghimire spoke of being threatened several times by anonymous callers. All through his many decades in journalism, he says, he has never had any reason to believe that the people of Janakpur were resentful of a Nepali language newspaper being published in their town. Faced with rising threats and harassment, Ghimire’s family has chosen voluntary exile in a nearby town, though he continues to live in Janakpur and to bring out his newspaper.
Media freedom organisations such as the FNJ and Freedom Forum have taken up Ghimire’s case and demanded that he be given a secure environment to pursue his profession.
There are signs that the intimidation caused by the violence and attacks on journalists and the media, and impunity for perpetrators, is having an effect. Journalists have been hesitant about exposing or covering certain issues about government and other groups because this could get them killed.
Most political observers and commentators agree that the unsettled conditions in the Terai are among the most serious of the myriad issues that threaten the democratic transition in Nepal. Suspicions are rife about the intentions of the numerous armed groups that have sprouted and the easy access they enjoy to counterpart gangs across the border in India. These are tied in with larger worries that the Terai could become a strategic battleground between powerful geopolitical players. The local media has unfortunately got swept up in this broader political game, depriving the local populace of a platform on which all relevant issues could be debated. Nepal’s ongoing effort to write a republican constitution for itself is potentially a process of historic significance. The suppression of the media in this context – which derivatively means the silencing of the voice of the people of Nepal – would ensure that this potential remains unrealised.
This investigation was conducted as part of the IFJ’s participation in the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission to Nepal from February 5-8, 2009, during which the mission members undertook a rapid assessment of the press freedom situation in the country. Aside from the IFJ, the mission team included representatives of Article 19, International Media Support (IMS), International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), UNESCO and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC). The mission’s full report will be made available soon.
For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0919
The IFJ represents over 600,000 journalists in 120 countries worldwide
 This is a measure of area used for purposes of calculating the land tax for which every land-holder is liable. It varies with the quality of the land and other such factors.