Killing democracy: Six months of media repression in Nepal

Six months on from the royal coup in Nepal, the Nepalese government's grip on the media remains unrelenting. Despite the official lifting of some media bans, Nepalese journalists face the day-to-day reality of censorship, kidnappings, torture, and even murder. The widespread censorship of free speech has not only placed journalists at risk of violence, but has resulted in widespread job losses, destroying the livelihood of many who worked in the media.

In the latest of a series of shocking events, the Royal Nepalese army warned Kantipur Daily and The Kathmandu Post reporters that action may be taken against them on charges of being Maoists. The threats were made following a media report that stated army personnel were using minors as their informants. According to information received by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), prior to this incident, army officers interrogated Kantipur reporter, Harihar Singh Rathor, along with Neupane, Shahi and Annapurna Post reporter, Pushkar Thapa, for reporting the same story. They refused army orders to publish corrections.

Beyond targeting journalists, on July 30 the army has also arrested Ramakanta Gautam, a distributor of Kantipur Publications. Security personnel have not disclosed his condition, or whereabouts.

"Six months on from the royal coup, these incidents serve as a timely reminder that the situation in Nepal has long passed crisis point," said IFJ President Christopher Warren.

"King Gyanendra claims to support democracy, and says that the media bans have been lifted, but all the evidence is that journalists in Nepal continue to face censorship, at best, and torture or murder at worst."

Recent months have followed a pattern of harassment of journalists, making it clear that the government's official pro-democracy stance is a pretence that cannot be believed.

In July alone, it was announced that the government plans to undertake mass sackings at Nepal Television (NTV), citing journalists' stance in favour of free media; the government refused to consider lifting the ban on FM news broadcasts; Gokul Baskota, the executive editor of Kathmandu's Dristi Weekly received death threats; and 22 people were arrested at a public rally, six of whom were journalists.

It is encouraging that despite the dangers they face, journalists continue to campaign for the right to free speech. Regular protest rallies take place, and underground media movements are emerging.

Prior to the royal coup, there was a robust independent media in Nepal. FM radio in particular, with forty-seven community and commercial radio stations blossomed across Nepal since 1997, had empowered citizens, many illiterate and living in difficult terrain. Until February 1, 2005, many of the stations had news bulletins on the hour. One news-producing venture called Communications Corner used to produce local news bulletins for a variety of stations and send them by satellite. Beyond the radio sector, other media was opening up, and sharp political discourse was possible.

But then the media bans came. King Gyanendra fired the government on February 1, suspended civil liberties and press freedom, blocked internet access, and cut phone lines in a move that he said was needed to fight an anti-monarchist Maoist revolt that has left 12,500 people dead.

Journalists who defy the ban, or speak out against the government face retribution - anything from losing their job, to arrest, torture, or mysterious disappearances. Furthermore, journalists who report in a 'pro-government' way face the likely possibility of attack from Maoist rebels. Balanced reporting leads to the possibility of intimidation from both sides.

The government has lifted the 'state-of-emergency' it used to justify comprehensive media censorship, but civil liberties, including freedom of the press and association, remain restricted. The former Prime Minister has been jailed for corruption by an extrajudicial, politically motivated, anti-corruption commission, and arrests of journalists and democracy activists continue. The restrictions not only hurt those who are directly intimidated by the army or the Maoists, but everyone who had consequently lost vibrant sources of news and the right to free speech.

The IFJ participated in the International Advocacy Mission for Press Freedom in Nepal from July 10 to 16. Click here to read the full mission statement

For further information contact Christopher Warren on +61 411 757 668
The IFJ represents over 500,000 journalists in more than 100 countries