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Journalists Under Attack In Nepal

by Marty Logan

to March 2005 coverage of Nepal's royal coup

(IPS) KATHMANDU -- Jail is just one threat facing Nepal's under fire journalists.

Since King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah declared a state of emergency on Feb. 1 and planted army censors in the country's newsrooms, dozens of reporters and editors have been arrested for disobeying directives about what they can broadcast or publish; others have been interrogated or had their homes or offices searched.

Thousands more have lost jobs or freelance work -- particularly after the ruler prohibited FM radio stations from airing news and current affairs -- and other media workers, especially in rural areas, continue to tread gingerly between security forces and Maoists battling across this South Asian nation.

On Tuesday, about 200 Nepali journalists defied a ban on protests to march through the streets of the capital demanding restoration of press freedoms.

Riot police stood guard as reporters, editors and photographers waved banners seeking the release of 13 journalists held by the authorities after emergency was imposed.

'We have resolved to continue the struggle until there is complete press freedom in the country,' Tara Nath Dahal, president of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), said in a statement.

'Nepali journalists have to fight for full democracy, press freedom and human rights,' the statement said.

But lately, Nepali journalists seem to be experiencing abuses of a different nature.

J B Pun Magar of 'Himal Khabarpatrika' newspaper was investigating a reported uprising of villagers against Maoist insurgents earlier this month when he was kidnapped.

'As I was about to climb into a jeep to cross the border (into India), four men on motorbikes who said they were Maoists took me away ... I did not panic, I was used to these situations while reporting on conflict,' he wrote in an article that was translated in the 'Nepali Times.'

Pun Magar was blindfolded and locked up in a border village until the next night.

'An hour later, six to seven people made me walk blindfolded for two hours after which I heard the voice of Pritam Pande, leader of an anti-Maoist vigilante group whom I had covered in November,' he said.

'Only then did I realize that my abductors weren't Maoists at all. They interrogated me and accused me of writing against other anti-Maoist groups,' Pun Magar added.

'After three days my abductors released me but not without a final warning: 'Be careful about what you write, next time you won't be spared.''

While reporters like Pun Magar continue working under such threats, about 100 journalists have gone into hiding, according to the FNJ.

'Reporters who cover political and conflict issues are at risk,' FNJ's Dahal told IPS. The association is trying to establish a 'safe house' in neighboring India where they can live safely, he added.

Dahal himself went underground for one month after Feb. 1 to avoid arrest, but FNJ General Secretary Bishnu Nisthuri was jailed Feb. 4, two days after the group published a press release condemning the royal coup. He was released Feb. 25 after sustained local and international pressure.

Dahal said the FNJ was quick to protest the king's takeover because, 'It's our duty (to protest). Press freedom and democracy are linked ... If we lose the democratic systems how can we enjoy media freedom?'

The right to a free press is enshrined in Nepal's constitution, a result of the 1990's 'people's movement,' when protests forced former King Birendra Bir Bikram Shah to agree to replace absolute monarchy with a constitutional system.

Since then the main political parties in one of the world's poorest countries have continually chased one another from power, themselves splintered into numerous wings and failed to contain a Maoist movement that was seen as a nuisance when it emerged in 1996 but has grown increasingly bloody, killing about 11,000 people to date.

Citing the political parties' futility and deep-rooted corruption, Gyanendra seized power Feb. 1, promising to relinquish control within three years.

The emergency he declared, in which freedom of expression and most other constitutional rights have been suspended, has devastated the media, according to Dahal. More than 2,000 journalists have lost work, in part because one-half of the country's newspapers have not resumed operating.

Some of those papers still lack phone service because security forces cut all internal and external communications Feb 1. Other publications have nowhere to print after authorities locked up printing presses, and some publishers would rather stay closed than risk offending the government, according to Dahal.

Reporters working outside of the capital Kathmandu face greater pressure, he added. For example, on Mar. 22 government officials in Bara district 100 kilometers south of Kathmandu issued 21 rules for the media, including a ban on reports critical of civil servants, according to the 'Kathmandu Post.'

A February fact-finding mission to Nepal by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) found, 'many journalists and editors admit that self-censorship has become widespread.'

The IFJ report, 'Coups, Kings and Censorship,' also charts the treatment of the Nepali media since a former government declared an emergency after peace talks between security forces and Maoists broke down in November 2001.

That 'began more than three years of pressure on journalists and the media, which included detentions, hostage taking and killing,' it says. Seven journalists were killed: three by security forces, three by Maoists and one by unknown hands, according to the IFJ.

That emergency was lifted in August 2002, 'however press freedom (still) suffered -- not at the hands of an official decree but through barriers to free movement in the form of security checking and Maoist blockades, and the withholding of information,' reports IFJ.

The difference between the past and current emergencies, said Dahal, is today's direct censorship.

'Radio Sagarmatha' (like all media outlets) had to make room for Nepal's Army on Feb. 1. 'While the king was addressing the nation (soldiers came) and said 'no news, no views, no telephone, nothing,'' the radio station's news coordinator Sanjib Adhikari recounted. About 18 soldiers camped out at the Kathmandu station, night and day, for about two weeks.

Since Feb. 1, the station -- like all FM radios -- has received letters from the government instructing it to air only entertainment programs or its operators will risk one year in jail or a fine of 10,000 rupees (139 U.S. dollars).

But station manager Mohan Bista said army officers told him informally that Sagarmatha could broadcast current affairs programs as long as they avoided political topics. 'Let's see what happens,' he said, sitting at a table at the station's small outdoor canteen.

'We are still airing one anti-corruption program but ... we fear what might happen if we say the wrong thing -- it's a feeling of fear and insecurity.'

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Albion Monitor March 29, 2005 (

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