Situation Report: Few Leads in Investigation of Nepal Radio Operator’s Murder

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is deeply worried that two weeks after the murder of Devi Prasad Dhital, a radio station head in Tulsipur town in Nepal’s far-western district of Dang, there is little clue about the identity of his killers or the motive behind the crime.


Dhital, 42, chairman of the Tulsipur FM radio station, was killed on the evening of July 22 by a group of five men who shot at him as he emerged from the home of a school teacher and political associate in his home town.


An IFJ representative who accompanied the President of the IFJ-affiliated Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) to the scene nine days later found that the local police investigation is yet to establish a motive for the crime or to identify suspects.


Tulsipur FM staff do not know why Dhital’s role as a media entrepreneur should have invited this manner of retribution.


“Coming in the context of repeated acts of violence and intimidation against radio station operators in Nepal, this case needs to be investigated as a crime against the right to free speech, until it is conclusively proved not to be the case,” IFJ Asia-Pacific Director Jacqueline Park said.


At the time of his murder, Dhital was campaigning for elections to the local village committee of the Nepali Congress Party (NCP), of which he has been an ordinary member for long. The NCP is a coalition partner in Nepal’s interim caretaker government, but local investigators believe the election was not a high-stakes contest, as it was merely about choosing local delegates to the provincial and national conventions of the NCP.


Dhital also has other business interests and wide social commitments including in local charities. None of these activities reveals any reason for animosity that could lead to murder.


Tulsipur FM, run by a trust that Dhital chaired, is a community radio station set up in 2005 with international donor assistance. The station is now running on advertising revenue, which amounts to about Nepalese Rupees (NPR) 250,000 a month. The station employs 17 journalists and manages to break even with a nominal level of donor assistance for content generation.


Early in 2010, a journalist working in Tulsipur FM, Narayan Khadka, received a phone threat after the station ran a report on a local criminal gang, calling itself the “Tigers”, which had burnt down a village school that refused to comply with its extortion demands. Khadka sought refuge in Kathmandu and returned to his home town only after he was assured the threat had abated.


Local police acknowledge that the “Tigers” have been under surveillance but have been neutralised to a great extent.


Dang district Police Superintendent Thakur Prasad Gyawali says that some 12 suspected elements of the “Tigers” have already been arrested and five have been committed to trial for extortion and kidnapping. The interrogation of another two is proceeding.


A five-member police team has been formed to investigate Dhital’s murder, said Gyawali. More than 20 individuals have been interviewed, including the resident of the house from which Dhital was emerging when he was attacked, the person who accompanied him on that campaign visit, and virtually everyone who was associated with him in his various roles, including the station manager of Tulsipur FM.


Raj Bahadur Bisht, Senior Superintendent of Police for Rapti zone, the larger jurisdiction within which Dang district falls, is confident of resolving the case. There have been some five murders in the district over a similar period of recent months which have all been solved, he said. Dang is not considered to be a district of intractable crime – like some districts in the plains bordering India – simply because criminals cannot easily escape the jurisdiction of Nepali police by crossing into Indian territory.


Witnesses have reported that some five persons were involved in the attack on Dhital. They were strangers to the area and had been seen there for a while prior to the murder. As Dhital emerged from his visit to the Tulsipur home of a school teacher and political associate, he was shot at, but not hit. He ran into a neighbouring compound but was chased by his assailants and shot at point-blank range. He was taken to the local hospital by his brother who arrived at the scene some 15 minutes later. Though alive on arrival at the hospital, Dhital was declared dead shortly afterwards.


His attackers meanwhile were last seen running across an agricultural field to the east of the street where the shooting took place. Though the crime occurred in daylight hours, none of the attackers, according to a young witness, were masked. The sole witness and her family have since left their home in Tulsipur for fear of their lives.


In February 2009, the IFJ visited the town of Janakpur in Dhanusha district in the south-eastern plains of Nepal, where Uma Singh, a young and dynamic journalist with the local radio station and newspaper owned by Janakpur Today had been murdered on January 11.


In that case, a trail of political motives was readily apparent, with Uma Singh’s brother and father having been abducted and possibly killed some months prior, reportedly by local political groups seeking to seize their land-holdings in the district adjoining Dhanusha. Uma Singh’s sister-in-law and some other accomplices were subsequently taken into custody, though the masterminds of the crime, both believed to be major figures in competitive ethnic politics, have since been reportedly sheltering in India.


Dhital is the third media entrepreneur killed within six months in Nepal. On February 7, Jamim Shah, chairman of Space Time Networks, with interests in television and FM radio, was shot dead in Kathmandu. On March 1, Arun Singhaniya, chairman and part owner of Janakpur Today, which runs the local FM station and newspaper that Uma Singh worked with, was gunned down in a busy part of the town.


Neither murder investigation has made much progress. In the case of Shah, there are suggestions from diverse quarters that the murder was in some way the outcome of bitter rivalry between intelligence agencies from neighbouring states, which often make tactical and strategic use of media organisations to achieve their ends.


Two local armed groups – the Tarai Janatantrik Party (Madesh) and the Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha – claimed responsibility for Singhaniya’s murder. Since Nepal’s monarchy was disestablished in a mass upsurge for democracy in 2005 – and later overthrown – the lower southern plains of the country, or the Terai, have been an arena of bitter political contestation. And as the constitution-writing process founders, the area sinks into greater turmoil.


At issue are the power-sharing arrangements in Nepal’s new republican constitution, which ethnic groups concentrated in the Teraibelieve should restore a balance that has historically been skewed against them. But without coherent leadership, the movement has splintered into factions, often working at cross-purposes. Singhaniya’s killing is believed to have been linked to his media organisation’s editorial position on these matters. This is consistent with a pattern of behaviour of these groups, since at least three of the five suspects who are under arrest in the Uma Singh murder have been associated with one or the other of the Terai militant groups.


There was a grim sequel to the Janakpur murder, when Pramod Shah, director of Radio Janakpur, was brutally assaulted at home on the evening of July 18 by a group of about 11 persons armed with heavy rods and canes. Shah sustained deep injuries to his head and back.


The police swiftly arrested three suspects and claimed that they were all under the influence of psychotropic drugs. But there is no denying that Janakpur Today as a media group has valid reason to consider its very existence under threat.


Though among Nepal’s most economically advanced regions, the Terai has evolved swiftly into one of the country’s most problem-ridden areas. Nepal’s far-west, and in particular Dang district, where Dhital was murdered, has not contended with heavily politicised criminal activity. This is part of the reason why local police are optimistic about an early solution to Dhital’s murder.


Tulsipur FM station meanwhile, has resumed its regular program schedule after the customary 13-day period of mourning for its chairman.


Dhital is survived by his wife, two daughters aged 13 and eight, and his aging parents.


The IFJ extends its deepest condolences to the bereaved family and wishes them all strength as they seek to rebuild their lives.


For further information contact IFJ Asia-Pacific on +612 9333 0919


The IFJ represents more than 600,000 journalists in 125 countries


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