World Press Freedom Review
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2006 World Press Freedom Review
A series of dramatic political developments in Nepal this year saw an end to King Gyanendra’s direct rule, the reinstatement of parliament and an end to the civil war that has resulted in the deaths of more than 12,000 people since fighting began in 1996. These developments have had far-ranging effects on the Nepalese media, now strongly focused on rebuilding after a brutal period of repression. Many reforms have been initiated to support an independent and pluralistic media environment and a number of restrictive legal measures have been overturned, providing the Nepalese media with more freedom to report. Despite these changes, significant media reform is still needed to meet the country’s current challenges. Continued harassment of journalists throughout the year showed that media representatives are at risk for what they report.
Nepal’s independent media was dealt a blow after King Gyanendra sacked the government and assumed absolute power in February 2005. Repressive measures enacted by the King during his 14-month period of direct rule led to a severe curtailment of basic rights and freedoms for Nepali citizens. Silencing the vibrant Nepali press was a key move in the King’s strategy to maintain executive powers and media practitioners were the constant targets of attack.
Press freedom violations continued uninterrupted in the first months of 2006 and attacks on journalists were reported on a near daily basis. During this period, journalists were detained, arrested and beaten or were restricted from covering demonstrations and events. Threats came from all sides with journalists facing interference from Maoists, from representatives of the Royal Nepal Army and from the police.
In late-January dozens of journalists were manhandled by police and more than 114 were arrested while covering pro-democracy demonstrations organized by the seven-party opposition coalition. A number of those arrested were sentenced to 90-day detention orders.
Maoist interference also escalated during this period. In one instance, rebels bombed and destroyed the relay tower of the state-owned Nepal Television in the town of Hetauda. The rebels forced the security guards out of the station before detonating the bombs.
The propaganda war waged between the state and the Maoists did much to threaten the survival of independent FM radio in Nepal. In 2005, the King banned all radio broadcast of news and information and outlawed programming that dealt with political issues. The move served to severely restrict access to information for much of Nepal’s rural population.
In March, stronger measures were taken when the state announced its attempt to militarize the media landscape by allowing the army to control broadcasts of six FM stations. In total, licenses for 10 stations were granted to the army by the Ministry of Information and Communications. On 7 March, just days before the army began its first test broadcasts, police cut the power to independent radio station Annapurna FM in Pokhara, after the station reported on Maoist activities.
From 20 to 25 March, IPI joined an international press freedom and freedom of expression advocacy mission to Nepal to investigate the treatment of journalists and the alarming tactics of intimidation and harassment being used to prevent the free flow of information.
The mission found that continued harassment by military and civil authorities, attacks and detention of media professionals, and seizure of equipment was having a devastating effect on the independent media. This was particularly true in the districts outside Kathmandu where journalists are more vulnerable to interference, and self-censorship was widely reported. Along with state harassment, journalists have also come under increased attack from Maoists following January’s ceasefire withdrawal.
Throughout the Royal Coup, Nepalese journalists and press freedom groups sought to restore democracy and were key players in the protest movement that led to the reinstatement of Parliament in April.
After three weeks of nation-wide strikes and protests against autocratic rule, on 24 April, King Gyanendra, bowing to massive public pressure, announced he would reinstate parliament. The leaders of Nepal’s seven largest political parties, who formed a united front with Maoists rebels in November 2005 to oppose the King, nominated Nepali Congress Party leader, Girija Prasad Koirala, to serve as interim prime minister. Parliament was convened on 28 April for the first time since May 2002.
The Nepalese army’s excessive use of force in quelling the nation-wide protests led to the deaths of 14 people and left thousands injured. Journalists were repeated targets of harassment and faced direct and, at times, violent interference while trying to report on unfolding events. More than 200 journalists were detained while participating in, or covering, the protests. Twenty of these journalists were given 90-day detention orders and remained in prison following the King’s announcement.
A number of journalists were brutally beaten while covering the demonstrations, others were reprimanded for disobeying a state imposed curfew that severely limited journalists’ access to events.
In one instance, on 10 April, more than a dozen policemen attacked three reporters from the independent newspaper Kantipur Daily. The journalists were later treated for bruising to their backs, arms and legs.
On 15 April, four members of the Federation for Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), Mahendra Bista, Shailendra Basnet, Krishna Humagain and Man Bahadur Neupane, received severe head injuries after police in Kathmandu beat them while disrupting an FNJ demonstration. On 17 April, Girija Adhikary, Birgunj correspondent of the Prateek Daily newspaper was arrested at his home and beaten by police officers who forcibly took him into custody and detained him overnight.
His thumb was broken and his back and knee were injured. When Adhikary was released the next day, he was met by security personnel who insulted and beat him for being on the streets during the curfew. Similar incidents of abuse were reported throughout the country.
Attempts to muzzle access to information during the protests were also reported. During the final week of demonstrations the Information Ministry ordered cable operators to stop broadcasting Kantipur TV in an attempt to deprive citizens of independent news.
During royal rule, King Gyanendra had enacted a number of repressive me- dia ordinances designed to systematically suppress the independent press. After the restoration of democracy in April, a number of important steps were taken to create a less restrictive media environment. On 9 May, parliament voted to annul the "Ordinance Amending some of the Nepal Act related to the Media." The Act, passed by King Gyanendra in October 2005, banned news programmes on FM radio, increased penalties for defamation tenfold and prohibited news deemed damaging to a member of the royal family.
On 18 May, the Supreme Court struck out Article 8 of the 1992 National Broadcasting Act and Article 15 (1) of the 1991 Publications and Newspapers Act, as unconstitutional. The first article gave the government the right to cancel the licenses of radio and TV stations that broadcast news, the latter allowed the government to restrict or censor coverage of sensitive topics.
On 2 June, the one-door advertising policy introduced by the Royal government was scrapped by the Council of Ministers. Using this policy the government had deprived dozens of independent publications and broadcasters of public advertising funds and given state-controlled media preferential treatment for advertising commissions.
On 11 June, the government scrapped the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO), which allowed for the prolonged detention of anyone alleged to have taken part in a terrorist act. The act was used on a number of occasions to detain journalists, often for months at a time.
In August, the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists publicized a statement, written to the Constitution Drafting Committee calling for guarantees of press freedom and freedom of expression to be enshrined in the new constitution. It also stated that the press should be established as the nation’s fourth estate. An Interim Constitution Drafting Committee was formed under the chairmanship of former Supreme Court Justice, Laxman Prasad Aryal, in July.
On 15 September, a High Level Media Commission, tasked with analyzing Nepalese media and providing expert advice on media policy, presented it’s findings to the Interim Constitution Drafting Committee and to Prime Minister Koirala.
The Commission put forward a number of recommendations dealing with the protection of media independence, effective implementation of the right to information, institutional development of the field of journalism, and structural reforms to media institutions, as well as legal and constitutional provisions.
Defamation remains a criminal offence in Nepal and security legislation places undue restrictions on the right to publish. With this in mind, the commission stated that a comprehensive reform of media law was a major priority. A review of the provisions related to press freedom and freedom of expression in the draft Interim Constitution was also called for, as the draft was said to differ little from the 1990 constitution. The Commission stated concerns that the draft did not, therefore, reflect current international standards or newer developments related to electronic and new media. One key recommendation was for digital media to be recognized as mass media and for open competition amongst Internet service providers to be promoted.
The need for privatization of state media outlets and for more comprehensive legislation guaranteeing the right to access information were also listed as priorities. The government was called on to convert state-run media outlets into publicly run enterprises. Such an initiative would see Radio Nepal, Nepal Television and Gorkhapatra and the Rising Nepal daily newspapers released from state-control. A delegation of the international press freedom and freedom of expression mission visiting Nepal in September put forward similar recommendations and also highlighted the need for the Working Journalists Act 2051 (1995) to be reviewed and amended to ensure that it provides protection for journalists rather than limiting their rights. In November, the government formed a task force to develop a framework for improving these working conditions.
A review of Nepal’s proposed Right to Information Bill 2063 (2006) released by Article 19 in December stated that while the Bill included positive features, certain elements had to be strengthened in order for the right to access to information to be fully protected. The review noted that the Bill included an overly broad regime of exceptions and provided for other laws and administrative policies to override the right to access. The Bill also failed to provide for a right to appeal a refusal for access and lacked promotional measures, such as the production of a public guide for using the law or training for officials.
Throughout the government’s process of consultation with media organizations, a number of press freedom groups raised the necessity for thorough investigations into the deaths of journalists killed during the conflict. This would include investigations into the deaths of Maheshwor Pahari, a journalist for the weekly Rastriya Swabhiman, who died in October 2005 after catching tuberculosis while being detained in Pokhara prison; Khagendra Shrestha, editor of the daily Dharan Today, who was shot to death by armed assailants, suspected to be Maoists, in March 2005; Badri Khadka, a reporter for the pro-Maoist Janadesh weekly who was allegedly tortured and killed by security forces in August 2004; Dekendra Raj Thapa, a reporter for state-run Radio Nepal who was murdered by Maoists in August 2004; and Padma Raf Devkota, a correspondent for Nepal Today magazine who was killed by the army in February 2004.
Despite the reforms undertaken by parliament to build the foundation for an open and pluralistic media environment, repeated attacks throughout the remainder of the year sparked serious concern for the safety of journalists. Numerous incidents of journalists being assaulted by police in reprisal for critical writing were reported, as were attacks on journalists and on media outlets by political interest groups. In a number of cases journalists received death threats in connection to their reporting.
Threats against journalists by Maoist groups also continued, despite statements by the Maoist Chairman Prachanda that his party was committed to press freedom.
Maoist groups blocked access to events, padlocked newspaper offices, confiscated equipment, seized footage and detained and assaulted journalists. Although Maoists have for the most part ceased to perpetrate violent attacks, they remain widely intolerant of critical coverage of their activities and journalists who report on the flaws of Maoist soldiers still receive threats.
From May through to December, attacks were reported on a near weekly basis prompting concerns as to whether parliamentary reforms had translated into real improvements on the ground.
Interference from political activists, local authorities, government officials and Maoist rebels proved that the repressive period of Royal rule did much to erode a culture of information-sharing within Nepal. Particularly in the districts, where many journalists carry out their work isolated from the movement of change and reform espoused by officials in the capital, press freedom violations continued to occur.
On 26 October, information about a bomb plot targeting the Kantipur Daily newspaper was released. Jai Krishna Goit, president of the Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), a splinter group of the Maoist Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) allegedly planned to detonate a bomb at Kantipur’s regional office in Biratnagar.
Goit had ordered a JTMM district coordinator, Jyoti Jha, to carry out the attack. Jha later confessed to the plan after being captured by the Maoists. Goit was apparently attempting to get back at Kantipur for publishing critical reports about the JTMM. The splinter group continues to carry out violent activities in southern Nepal despite the ceasefire called by the Maoists.
On 11 November, Member of Parliament, Raj Kuman Chaudhary, from the Saptari district, threatened Avadesh Kuman Jha, a reporter with Rajbiraj Today over an article published about him. Chaudhary telephoned Jha and threatened to burn down the newspaper’s offices and attack the journalists working for the media outlet.
On 15 November, Maoist leaders in the Morang districts threatened two locally based journalists that they would face "devastating consequences" if they reported on Maoists abducting people for recruitment. Several weeks earlier, on 26 October, Maoists forcibly seized the regional transmission center of Nepal Television in Kohalpur and occupied the premises for more than 10 days to establish a military camp.
A worrying development took place on 5 December, when the state-run Nepal Television cancelled a programme Sabajanik Sunuwi ("Public Hearing") after the programme presented, on 27 November, the pros and cons of the recent Citizenship Act. Despite the fact that both positive and negative effects of the Act were discussed, programme director Bhola Thapa, and presenter Dinesh Subedi, were accused of disrupting national integrity and communal harmony. Authorities apparently suggested that the journalists should have censored the programme. This type of interference fell far below the standards of media independence repeatedly espoused by the new regime.
On 28 December, Bed Raj Pudel, a Kantipur FM correspondent in Inaruwa, in eastern Nepal, was threatened by a local official, Dav Ram Yadhav. Displeased with Kanitpur’s coverage of the Sunsari, Jhapa and Morang districts, Yadhav threatened to break Pudel’s legs and burn his van if the journalist failed to increase his coverage of the area.
A number of other press freedom violations were monitored by the FNJ, who reported in a year-end report that more than 30 attacks on the press had taken place during the last six months of 2006.
These attacks raise serious concerns for the safety and security of journalists and suggest that, while the government is taking steps to reform the statue books, guarantees for the protection of journalists carrying out their professional duties must also be prioritized. A number of the perpetrators of these attacks have been investigated and prosecuted by authorities and this process must continue if a more tolerant and open climate for reporting is to be supported.
The vibrant and dynamic Nepalese media were instrumental in fighting for an end to autocratic rule and the restoration of democracy this year. While the new government has taken many positive steps to support the media, a number of key reforms are still needed. There is hope that the change in the political system will spur further reforms and that newly elected leaders will take the opportunity to put in place a truly democratic framework for press freedom and freedom of expression.
Necessary Changes to the Media Environment:
• Decriminalization of press laws
• Reforms to security legislation that limits the right to publish
• Enhancement of Right to Information Bill
• Conversion of state-run media into public service enterprises
• Improved safety training for district media
• Investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of attacks against journalists
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