The Nepalese media is at the crossroads today. One path, pursued by the state, threatens freedom of expression and challenges the very existence of independent professional media, while the other, pursued by the media community, is in fact a difficult path of relentless struggle.
Almost every day, Nepalese journalists are facing threats, intimidation and detention at the hands of state as well as combatant parties. Protest rallies are common in Kathmandu, the capital, and beyond, followed by police interventions and mass arrests.
The journalist's community, led mainly by the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), is at the frontline of this battle against the suppressors of press freedom in Nepal. After the Royal takeover on 1 February 2005, the state is bent to demolish the infrastructure upon which the Nepalese media grew after the restoration of democracy in 1990.
The media has been placed under constant harassment and are being forced to dish out one-sided official statements as truth. People's right to information has been badly impaired.
The Nepali press is grateful to the civil society and international community for their support and solidarity, which has exerted sustained pressure on the authorities. But state policies are far from being favourable.
Despite the government effort and action to curb media freedom and impose state control over them, Nepalese journalists have constantly fought to retain or regain their freedom. Journalists had to launch several Movements to protect their rights and freedom, not only in the present (post-February 1) situation but even during the tenure of the elected governments. However, never did the media community face so strong a challenge from the state and non-state sectors as in the present times.
Press freedom is impossible without democracy in a country like Nepal. The overthrowing of an elected government (by the King), on 4 October 2003, and then a multi-party government on 1 February 2005, came as a big jolt to the free media. Media was the chief target of the King's government from the very start of the post-February 1 regime. And it was the media community (Federation of Nepalese Journalists) that first criticized the royal move calling it a "coup".
Nepalese journalists are still fighting, and may require fighting still longer, to safeguard the press freedom and freedom of _expression in this politically volatile country where citizens face two-way pressure from armed powers--the dictatorial state and the Maoist insurgents.
Vibrant and Independent since the restoration of democracy in 1990, the Nepalese media have never anticipated that the audacious royal coup of February 1 would threaten the foundation of the media industry in Nepal and the established right of people to information, enshrined in the 1990 constitution.
The “onslaught and terror” created by the security forces following the February 1 royal move has brought the vibrancy of Nepalese media to a total standstill. The influence of private media was clearly seen as a serious threat by the state, and the February 1 proclamation and subsequent restrictions were the most devastating blow to private media since democracy was restored.
Though the king, in his February 1 speech, offered reassurance that free-_expression is among “the inherent features of multiparty democracy” and that the press “serves as the medium for raising the level of democratic consciousness”, the ensuing actions of the security forces have been at odds with his lofty rhetoric.
There were several cases of arrests and detention of media professionals, making their whereabouts unknown and even subjecting them to intimidation and torture.
So the media community, especially the journalists, took to street agitation, as the only way out left with them to protect the survival of Nepali press as a whole. At the broad level, the media movement is aimed at protecting the fundamental human rights and freedom of _expression.
Immediately after the Royal proclamation on February 1, the army was mobilized against the media. For the first time in the five-decade long history of Nepalese media, media houses and journalists were directly interfered with by the security personnel, who monitored and censored the news in editorial rooms. Armed soldiers went to newspapers and radio stations with instructions to prevent publication or broadcast of anything that violated “the letter or spirit” of the February 1 royal proclamation.
The army was stationed for about a week in the majority of the media houses, creating panic and humiliating the media personnel. This direct interference by the army ended the existence of independent press in the country.
Nepal was cut off from the outside world as all the means of information. Mobile phones, interment service, international TV channels and newspapers were all prohibited as the King declared state of emergency for 3 months. There was no BBC World, no CNN, and no Star or Zee TV news from India. The remaining television stations offered soap operas and pop videos, leaving the nation without access to independent news immediately after the King's Proclamation. In the coming days, most television stations were restored to cable networks, but a few Indian channels—blamed in the past for sensationalist reporting on events in Nepal—were still not available till the third week of June.
The situation outside the Kathmandu valley was even worse as the newspapers were ordered to stop publication without saying when they would be allowed to resume. The army ordered some FM stations to shut down for a few days, while others played only music or clips of the Kings speech.
Subsequently, a Royal Ordinance was introduced to amend some media laws which sought to drastically curb and govern the media--print, broadcast as well as online media.
The FM radio stations were hit hard by the government's decision after February 1. The government banned broadcast of news and news-related programs over FMs for six months. As a result over 1,000 journalists working in 47 FM stations all over the country were reportedly laid off initially. Some of the journalists thus laid off were recalled to service after some months but many had to look for alternative jobs.
After the imposition of the state of emergency on Feburary 1, the editor of Dharan Today, a newspaper published from eastern town of Dharan, Khagendra Shrestha, was shot by a group of unidentified assailants. There is also a growing fear that the state is committing targeted assaults on journalists, whilst hiding its identity, creating terror amongst the media community and beyond.
Over 31 journalists have been arrested and interrogated for publishing news presumed to be in conflict with the Royal directives. Some journalists were also detained for covering protests staged by political parties and publishing cartoons and broadcasting pieces like interviews with Maoist leaders (SAFMA Report, May 2005).
According to CEHURDES, a total of 28 journalists reported that they were interrogated by security forces and government authorities over the last year (mid-April 2004 until mid-April 2005). Four received death threats. At least 51 journalists were arrested and were subjected to harassment while in detention. However, most of the journalists who were given three months detention warrants under the public security act were released at the initiation of Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) and human rights groups. According to latest reports, there were still 5 journalists detained across the country. Two of them were taken into custody after the declaration of the state of emergency, while the rest were detained prior to that.
There have been over one dozen incidences of seizure of publications and at least six reported cases of removing equipment from journalists by the Maoists and security personnel. Three journalists were severely beaten up while covering the political protests. A reporter with the Himal Khabarpatrika (J.B. Pun Magar) was abducted during this period by vigilantes and was later released.
Editor of pro-left Budhabar weekly, Surya Thapa, was summoned by the District Administration Office, Kathmandu, seven times to explain news items published in his newspaper. This is only one example of how authorities have harassed private and independent media.
During the state of emergency, local authorities forcibly closed over three dozens newspapers. Most of them were allowed to resume their publications after sometime on condition that they would not violate government's orders. Most of the local newspapers resume publications a few days later or some months while others still remain closed. The cases of closure of newspapers were the highest in the Mechi area while journalists in mid-western region were mostly harassed by both the security forces and Maoists. (CEHURDES)
The ban and confiscation of newspaper started soon after the proclamation of the King on February 1, 2005. In many instances, newspapers outside Kathmandu were seized from the press.
“With daily reports of journalists detained, attacked, intimidated and fresh government crackdowns, journalists are left with little choice but to go underground and/or to write the government line,”
IFJ President Christopher Warren (IMS funded trip to Nepal, April 2005)
Reporting what one sees on the ground in the line of duty or reporting truth has become a dangerous business in Nepal. Journalists have started practicing self-censorship. As the state is turning intolerant and mobilizing its resources to punish the media or media personnel that do not fall into line, simply discharging one's duty by upholding maximum professional/ethical standards has become challenging, if not impossible.
With such a background, the important question is how the Nepalese media community moves forward from here. Continued vigilance is the price to be paid for freedom. Since the right to information and press and publication rights have been enshrined in the constitution, media personnel must be vigilant, maintain solidarity and fight for their rights whatever the circumstances. At the same time networking at the district, national and international level will be crucial to protect rights of media personnel in general and that of conflict victims and journalists in particular (IPI Nepal Chapter, 2005).
Although the King officially ended the state of emergency on 29 April, no improvements in restrictions on the media have been noted.
Intimidation and demoralization by the security personnel is rampant both in Kathmandu and outside. The authorities, not legally competent to regulate the media, are interfering with the daily working of media without being accountable to a legally competent authority. Given the ambiguity of the scope of censorship, the officials at various tiers of civil and military administration are making the life of working journalists difficult. The orders are often verbal and, in most cases, violate all tenets of law. Editors and journalists are summoned to the police stations or military barracks where they are humiliated, pressurized and in some cases tortured (SAFMA Report, May 2005).
Even the local authorities are censoring the news in the remote districts, while reporters have to fax their stories from the government facilities (The Kathmandu Post).
Free press has contributed allot towards strengthening democracy and ensures the constitutionally granted right of free -_expression in Nepal. The flow of quality, independent information, especially from community radio stations in remote districts, cannot be given a dollar value. It was, in many ways, a priceless asset to those in Nepal struggling to develop the country and restore peace to the countryside. Freedom of press, equality and diversity are essential conditions of democracy. Freedom here refers to the situation where media can express its views without fear or intimidation (Pyakurel, Aryal, p. 159).
With the latest curbs in press freedoms, the state is moving to dismantle the very foundation of free press in Nepal. At a Kathmandu press conference on April 12, CPJ called on the government of Nepal to end the harassment and imprisonment of journalists and to repeal restrictions imposed on private media, including the ban on FM radio news broadcasts. CPJ Executive Director, Ann Cooper, noted that since the beginning of democracy in 1990, private media had:
“Developed into Nepal's main forum for responsible, constructive public debate…. But now the authorities seem determined to close down that forum and force a return to the days when news and information came only from tightly restricted state media….. That would be a huge loss for the Nepali public and a great setback for democracy.”
Following direct state interference after February 1, the situation of panic has shattered much of the courage of the media personnel, especially among the owners and the editors. Threatening and interference has created fearful a psychology among the journalists.
The key issue before the Nepali press today is the sense of insecurity stemming from government's attitude towards the press. In terms of direct impact, up to 2,000 reporters, editors, and other news people have lost their jobs since February 1, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists reported in April. An even larger number are working without pay or for a fraction of their former wages due to falling advertising revenues.
Uncertainty is hanging over the media community and media houses. Safety of journalists has become more critical, especially those living and working outside the Kathmandu valley and in zones of conflict.
Since February 1, reporting from rural and remote areas of the country has become even more dangerous. Reporters are risking their lives, without having proper security and insurance for their lives. Dozens of journalists have been picked up by the security forces and interrogated. Some were held for only a few hours, but 10 remained in custody in mid-April, according to the FNJ.
The ‘Print and Publication Act' and ‘National Broadcasting Act' are being misused to stifle those publications and broadcasting houses that refuse to compromise their editorial independence. The leverage of draconian laws, such as the ‘Terrorism and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO)', is being used at random against journalists who, in most cases, are being kept under detention at military barracks, police stations or unknown places with no access to family or legal representation. The whereabouts of certain missing journalists is still not known to their families. Eight journalists are still under detention while many more are missing (SAFMA Report, May 2005).
Young journalists are shying away from the profession due to prevailing uncertainty, which will ultimately cause irreparable loss to the growth of journalism in Nepal.
8. In a serious blow to the press freedom in Nepal, the government authorities are now working to segregate media houses that favour the establishment and those who do not support in its bid to create a state controlled media. They are working on a long-term design whereby they can ensure an end to the free press in a Nepal.
There has been a tremendous response from the international press community in favor of Nepali journalists fighting to restore press freedom in Nepal. Various missions have visited Nepal to get first hand accounts of press situation in Nepal. Still what is lacking is a sustained and coordinated effort to work for the cause of press freedom in Nepal.
International lobbying and advocacy should continue. This should not be confined to particular visits or missions, but should lead to a project oriented and sustained initiative to support press freedom and working journalists. A broader alliance at home for press freedom and establishing a global network could be instrumental for a sustained voice in favour of press freedom in Nepal. International advocacy missions to Japan, India, Europe and North America should be organized to garner broader support for the cause of press freedom in Nepal.
(Based on the background paper prepared by National Media Organizations for the Joint International Advocacy Mission to Nepal, July 10-17, 2005)