IFJ Demands Justice for Uma Singh and an End to Impunity in Nepal

 

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.

 

Fact-finding mission

 

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 investigation

 

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.”[1]

 

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.

 

Political Background

 

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.

 

 

 

The Accused

 

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


[1] 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.