20 - 21 September 2002
Following popular protests in Nepal in 1991, the system of government changed from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy. The political scene has since then been extremely fractionalised with frequent changes in government. The present government party, the Nepal Congress Party (NCP), has been in office for most of the past decade, commanding a majority of seats in the Parliament, whilst the main opposition party, the United Marxist-Leninists (UML), has taken office only once for a brief period during this time.
Since 1996, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) has been engaged in an armed struggle in an attempt to replace the Kingdom's constitutional monarchy with a Communist Republic, resulting in deaths of more than 4,000 people since the mid-nineties.
A State of Emergency, declared by the Government in November 2001, the Mangalsen assault launched by the Maoists in February 2002, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 140 police and military personnel, seems to have bolstered the Governments resolve to find a solution to the conflict through military means. Of note is the backing given to this policy by the international community, in particular from India and China. Even though these operations have probably weakened the military resources of the Maoists, well-placed observers do not believe that a rapid military solution to the conflict is possible.
In the areas under Maoists control, a so-called parallel administration has been set up and they reportedly use severe methods to retain control over the local population. In addition, to manifest their control the Maoists also target teachers and schools and are using the tactic of disrupting road traffic, including the bombing of public transportation.
Media and the Conflict
Despite the fact that press laws restrict reporting on the monarchy and national security, and a number of journalists have reportedly been detained after covering alleged police abuses and corruption, the media is considered to enjoy a fair amount of freedom. A range of media outlets exists, from Maoist to monarchist, and carry criticism of the Government. Radio broadcasting in Nepal started in 1951, whilst TV did not begin until 1986, although only about 10% of the population has access to television and only 14% have electricity.
From the outset, when the State of Emergency was adopted in November 2001, the Government assured the media that the suspensions of freedom of expression, freedom of the press and the right to information would entail no practical consequences as long as the media didn't propagate the Maoist points of view. Nevertheless, reality has proven to be somewhat more complicated. The Government has kept its promise not to institute censorship or a tight surveillance of the press. Consequently, a lot of criticism of the Government, including its handling of the present situation, can be read in the newspapers. In the clampdown on presumed Maoist publications and individual journalists the authorities have pursued, however, a rather indiscriminate practice. A significant number of journalists with no affiliation whatsoever to the Maoists have been imprisoned, threatened or harassed in other ways by Government agencies.
Publications with a clear link to the Maoists have been banned and several of their publishers and journalists have been detained. In some cases this has been based on clearly articulated encouragement or support to acts of violent terrorism, depicting it as a heroic struggle. In other cases journalists have been detained solely on the basis of their suspected sympathies. The legal justification has been limited to some rather vague references to necessary preventive measures.
Following allegations that police tortured to death a left-wing editor, Krishna Sen, of the Janadisha newspaper, the media community in Nepal and a number of international human rights groups have called on the Government to investigate the case. In addition, national journalists' organisations claim that both sides had engaged in abductions, torture and unlawful killing of journalists. More than 100 journalists have been arrested since the State of Emergency was declared, thus creating a climate of fear and self-censorship.
The same issues are faced by journalists in Maoist controlled areas. An integral part of the Maoist strategy is to control the population through severe methods and independent minded individuals are threatened or even killed. Furthermore, in the territories under dispute the authorities maintain a very restrictive practice in relation to journalists. As a result independent reporting from those regions affected by violent conflict is severely restricted. This inhibition, together with a general lack of adequate information from the Government, is criticized strongly among media professionals in Nepal. In June, journalist Nawaraj Sharma 'Basant', editor and publisher of the Karnali Sandesh weekly newspaper was kidnapped and killed by Maoists.
Broadcast and Print Media
The working conditions of the three main mass media categories are very different. Television is under strict government control, as is the state-owned Radio Nepal. Private radio is either commercial with no intentions at all of conducting independent journalism, or community based which entails a number of official restrictions on news reporting. Thus, pluralism and independence is primarily found in print media.
The print media sector is facing a number of serious obstacles. Even though the proportion of illiterates has dropped significantly in Nepal during the last two decades (roughly from two thirds to one third), the reading public still constitutes a limited segment of the population. Secondly, distribution of newspapers outside the Kathmandu valley and a few other populous urban areas is costly and cumbersome. Thirdly, in a poor country like Nepal the advertising potential is rather limited.
Despite these obstacles print media has developed at a very fast pace since the early nineties. The official figures of publications are significant and even though they reflect the number of registered entities rather than those actually being printed and distributed, the scene is still marked by a vibrant and competitive pluralism. Many smaller dailies and weeklies are published in Kathmandu, as well as in the provincial urban centres. In the capital five major publishing houses issue a range of publications - dailies, weeklies and magazines in both Nepalese and English. Apart from the government owned Gorkhapatra, which is still in operation, the four privately owned are Kantipur/Kathmandu Post, Himal/Nepal Times, Space Times and Himalayan Times.
A number of highly professional institutions and organisations constitute an important part of the Nepalese media environment. Some of the most important ones are Nepal Press Institute (NPI), the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, Centre for Investigative Journalism, Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists, Himal Association, IFJ affiliates: Nepal Press Union and National Union of Journalists.
Conflict Reporting & Safety Training
The IFJ and International Media Support developed a programme in Nepal seeking to support the professionalism of the media in the country by achieving the most reliable - accurate, diverse and independent - news possible, whilst developing the use of techniques and skills to enhance the individual physical safety of journalists in their everyday work.
The media in Nepal has the potential to contribute to the de-escalation of the ongoing conflict and to enhance political stability in the country. For the media to fulfil this potential, journalists need to be better equipped with the practical and theoretical tools to deal with and report on conflict environments.
A conflict region is a potentially hazardous environment for any journalists. In the Nepalese context, the State of Emergency and controls put in place by the Government have restricted media access to the conflict affected areas. However, when these restrictions are potentially lifted in the coming months and access to these areas is again possible, it will be of significant benefit for the Nepalese media community to be aware of internationally practiced safety techniques, particularly as such skills have not been previously taught to the journalist community in Nepal.
In a time of political transition and/or conflict, the pressures upon news editors and journalists become more intensive and therefore the traditional standards of professionalism require reinforcement and support. Accuracy, balance and context are critical in every story as the media can be particularly influential in conflict. Low standards can lead to the media becoming a contributor to the conflict, through propagating rumours, falsehoods, misperceptions and fears. However, it is equally true that a good-performing media can be a critical element of conflict reduction. Research has shown that a reliable media unconsciously executes many of the key attributes of a classic conflict resolution process. Thus, understanding those attributes can significantly assist editors and journalists to sustain professionalism in their everyday work during times of political translations and/or conflict.
Conflict Conscious Journalism
There are a number of techniques emerging to assist media professionals in considering and applying what has been variously called counter-conflict or conflict-sensitive journalism in their work. To a significant extent such techniques are based upon the reinforcement and application of basic professional standards and the workshop examines such standards and builds upon them with conflict conscious journalism skills in the Nepalese context.
Two conflict conscious journalism seminars have been implemented under this programme. The first half-day seminar was aimed at editors and include approximately ten participants. A discussion forum took place raising awareness of the techniques and advantages of conflict conscious journalism, in particular relating to the editor's role as 'gatekeepers' of the news and mentors to journalists.
The second two-day course included twenty-five senior and mid career journalists. The seminar provided conflict conscious reporting techniques for the journalists to use in their everyday work.
Ross Howard, who recently gave a series of such seminars in Sri Lanka, facilitated the conflict conscious journalism activities. Mr. Howard is the author of 'Operational Framework for Media and Peace Building' published in April 2002, which analyses the media as an element of conflict resolution in war-torn societies. Furthermore, Mr. Howard has won several awards for his political, investigative and environmental journalism in Canada.
Safety Training Course
The two-day course was aimed at senior and mid career journalists and included approximately twenty-five participants.
The course covered the following elements:
Weapons familiarization - it is essential for journalists to know how to react if confronted by armed men and indeed how to behave if actually shot at, particularly as in the current situation in Nepal this is not an unlikely situation.
Personal security - enables the journalists to identify threats to their personal security in advance of a potentially hostile situations developing.
Target awareness - methods of how to avoid becoming a target in a volatile and dangerous environment. To raise awareness of why people become targets and how to reduce the risk of becoming a target.
Vehicle-hijacking - issues related to travelling in both urban and remote areas, as in Nepal journalists may be required to drive in remote and potentially hazardous regions.
Public disorder & Riots - Investigates the causes of riots and how different security forces deal with them. Analyses the dangers involved for journalists covering riot situations. Advise on methods for reducing the risk involved in reporting a riot / civil disorder situation and give practical advice on improvised protection.
Self sufficiency - covers areas where one might predict when things can go wrong, with a particular focus on stress management.
Hostage situation lecture focuses on strategies to avoid becoming kidnapped. Although, this may not be a high risk in Nepal, the lecture highlights strategies for surviving captivity regardless of where one is being held captive and could therefore be applicable for journalist detained by the authorities.
Planning and preparation - focuses on the stages before going on an assignment and highlights contingency planning that may help reduce the possibilities of becoming involved in an incident and what action should be taken in the event of an incident developing.
Medical elements cover the basics of advanced trauma life support, which are essential in the event of becoming involved in a situation where medical assistance is not available immediately.
All the journalists were actively engaged in the course. They took extensive notes and asked relevant questions. Additional elements raised by the participants and discussed by the trainer were what to do in case of an ambush and an extra lecture was put in on landmines.
The safety training course was implemented by AKE, which was formed in 1991 as a specialist consultancy and training company and is now internationally recognised as leader in safety training courses for journalists working in hostile regions and conflict affected areas. Its courses are used by major news organisations, including CNN, BBC, and Reuters. Recently, AKE implemented safety training courses in Pakistan for Afghan journalists in January 2002, and in February 2002, safety training courses were implemented by AKE for Palestinian Journalists on the West Bank and Gaza, organised jointly by the IFJ and IMS.
All participants received a copy of the IFJ International Code for the Safe Conduct of Journalism translated into Nepali.
Participants were asked if they had learned anything new or relevant throughout the course and all responded with a resounding yes. Some said they would behave differently if faced with some of the situations dealt with throughout the course.
It seems safe to conclude that the seminars did indeed provide in-put which was relevant to the participants. The AKE course seemed well targeted to the individual journalist, providing much very practical and easy-to-apply advise. Many welcomed the very practical and how-to-do-it advice addressing basic, but very dangerous situations relevant to media workers, both as individuals and as members of a team.
The AKE instructor showed great flexibility and willingness to give advice on any number of issues raised by the participants throughout the course.
The primary national partner for the programme was the Nepal Press Institute. However, close co-operation will also be established with the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, Centre for Investigative Journalism and Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Studies (CEHURDES), Himal Association, Nepal Press Union and National Union of Journalists.
Nepal will most likely be a dangerous work environment for journalists for sometime to come, particularly with the lifting of the State of Emergency, ongoing peace talks which are in dispersed with violence and the upcoming elections.
The participants were enthusiastic, took numerous notes, asked pertinent questions and showed their appreciation. The information delivered was succinct, relevant and timely.
Of great importance in Nepal has been the unified front of all journalists' organisations and various strikes and demonstrations have been organised over the past two years in solidarity with ALL journalists working in Nepal. Constructive dialogues have been implemented with the Government in defence of press freedom and journalists' rights, which could only have been successful because of a unified journalists' front.
What was equally remarkable was the variety among the participants as the whole of Nepal was represented by journalists from Kathmandu as well as journalists from the so-called Maoist areas. They displayed a sense of camaraderie and solidarity that can serve as an example to all journalists worldwide.
Brussels October 2002
Sarah de Jong Human Rights & Safety Officer, International Federation of Journalists
IFJ Coordinator Nepal Safety Training Course
Contributions were received from
International Media Support
Rory Peck Trust
International Federation of Journalists