Rajendra Dahal, a widely respected Nepali journalist, is one of the few standing firm against the state’s near total censorship of the media. King Gyanendra assumed direct rule of the country on 1 February after declaring a state of emergency. As the editor of Nepal’s top news magazine, Himal Khabarpatrika, Dahal is probably the last editor left in the country who is going to press carrying criticism of the regime, but his days are numbered, fellow journalists say.
“I don’t know when they will shut my mouth forever. But we have a job to do,” Dahal told IRIN. On 7 March, his publisher and an eminent journalist, Kanak Mani Dixit, had been arrested for their critical view on the king’s action. Two days later on 9 March, his reporter JB Pun Magar was abducted by a vigilante group posing as Maoists, in Kapilbastu, birthplace of Buddha, 200 km southeast of Kathmandu, where Magar was on an assignment.
These crackdowns on journalists are just some of many that have taken place since 1 February, but are an escalation of existing attacks on journalists and a free press, according to media rights NGOs. “Pressure, arrests and beatings are not new things for Nepali journalists. Since 2001, and the first state of emergency, the security forces started preventing journalists from doing their job and arrested dozens of them because they were suspected of having contact with Maoists [insurgents],” Vincent Brossel, from Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) told IRIN.
In the past 45 days, at least seven journalists have been placed in police detention and dozens more have been subject to constant interrogation and harassment by the state across the country in an unprecedented clampdown that has spelt the demise of free media in the Hindu kingdom.
As a result of the ban, more than 2,000 journalists are currently out of work and many newspapers outside Kathmandu have been ordered by the state to close down for an indefinite period. “The assault on the Nepali press cannot be gauged by the number of journalists who are in detention. Even more important is the intimidation and harassment, the planned campaign to demoralise the Nepali press, including reporters, publishers, producers,” Dixit told IRIN.
But in terms of information dissemination, the loss of independent radio news in a country where newspaper readership is limited, is perhaps a bigger blow. Radio journalism has suffered even more than the press, observers say. All FM radio stations have been banned from airing any news following strict instructions from the Ministry of Information and Communication to broadcast only music-based programmes. The ban has cost the jobs of over 1,000 radio journalists.
“It’s a very sad situation for us. Independent radio broadcasters were serving the nation so well and better than any form of media, given the level of literacy. How can they be accused of boosting the morale of Maoists and undermining the state?” said eminent journalist and a pioneer of independent radio in Nepal, Bharat Datta Koirala.
UNDER ATTACK FROM ALL SIDES
Journalists, like many ordinary Nepalis, are caught between both sides in the nine-year conflict and many have been abducted, beaten up and even killed by the Maoists. The media has played a major role in keeping the public informed about the violent insurgency, including individual killings, torture of civilians, abductions, extortion, bombing of schools and human rights abuses. Such news coverage went some way towards explaining the loss of popular support for the rebels in recent years.
“Instead of boosting the morale of the journalists who fought against Maoist injustice, the state has today done just the opposite by blaming the media for promoting Maoist propaganda,” explained Dahal. “The state has been targeting the same journalists as the Maoists did."
Many journalists today in Nepal have given up hope of a free press returning. Even their own publishers have started to terminate their jobs under pressure from the state. “Journalists have now been cornered from all three sides, the state, rebels and now the media owners. In this situation, it is natural for them become demoralised,” explained senior journalist Shiva Gaunle.
According to a new report by the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), dozens of qualified, experienced media staff have given up the profession and are now working as teachers, grocers, retailers and involved in farming. “In Banepa, 20 km east of Kathmandu, a local radio journalist has switched to collecting milk and moving it to the processing centre,” said the report. Another journalist with seven years of experience, had bought a buffalo and started a dairy farm at his hometown in Panauti, 30 km east of Kathmandu, added the report.
UNDER PRESSURE FROM THE STATE
“Outside the capital, journalism is totally non-functional, you could say it does not exist at all,” Guanle commented.
“All journalists are in a state of severe shock. We never expected to lose press freedom to such an extent,” Tara Nath Dahal, the president of FNJ, told IRIN. Three days after the 1 February royal proclamation, the security forces raided Dahal’s house in an attempt to arrest him but he managed to escape and take refuge inside the United Nations building. “The attitude of the state is totally negative and it looks like the censorship and control of journalists will be even more severe,” explained Dahal.
Journalists based near conflict areas, especially in western Nepal, are constantly under scrutiny and are not allowed to travel to villages. “It’s a hopeless situation for us. You cannot imagine the level of frustration that we are going through,” said a journalist in Nepalgunj, a key border city 300 km west of the capital, who requested not to be named.
In the city, journalists said telephone lines had been cut to several newspaper offices. There are reports of editors having to send their copy to the army barracks or to the chief district office before going to press. Even after they are published, if an article or comment offends, the newspaper will never see the news stand, the journalist said.
Pressure from international media watchdogs to relax media censorship in Nepal has had little impact. On 24 February King Gyanendra gave an audience to a group of print and online editors and pledged to ease the situation, but there has been no substantive change. “In the short term, I don't see any option for local correspondents and local reporters to work freely. These restrictions will only end when the civil war ends,” explained RSF’s Brossel.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions