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.
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
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
Below is the IFJ’s full report of its investigation into the murder of
The Murder of Uma Singh and the
Status of Journalism in Nepal’s
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
represents over 600,000 journalists in
120 countries worldwide
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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.