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South Asia: Journalists at the Vanguard

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An IFJreports says media freedom faced formidable challenge in the past year, yet, the picture is not entirely bleak.

In 2005-2006, South Asia witnessed renewed struggles for democracy and freedom from autocratic rule. Movements where journalists and freedom of expression advocates have been at the vanguard.

No where was this more true than in Nepal where King Gyanendra’s last ditch effort to retain absolute power after his take-over on February 1, 2005, galvanised calls from a diverse opposition for complete democracy and press freedom. The freedom of expression situation in Nepal deteriorated significantly, despite the lifting of the emergency at the end of April 2005.

Popular protests forced the king to begin to give power back to the political parties by reinstating Parliament as a first step.

Intimidation, harassment, attacks and detention of media professionals, particularly in the districts, continue unabated. Private and community FM radio stations bore the brunt of the government’s attempt to prevent independent news from being aired across the geographically challenged country, to a largely non-literate population.

Armed police and the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) used excessive force, teargas and batons, and fired indiscriminately at protestors in an attempt to control the recent mass peaceful protests across Nepal, in which several demonstrators were killed and several hundred injured.

The winds of democracy were also blowing over the tiny kingdom of Bhutan. An absolute monarchy, there are no private organisations, political parties, social organisations or trade unions. Those who speak out against the government, king or high-profile bureaucrats face imprisonment. A hundred thousand people who were banished from Bhutan while protesting for the right to organise, free speech and culture in 1990, continue to languish as refugees.

Recently, Bhutan has been moving towards democracy under the leadership of King Jigme Singye Wangchuk. With the promulgation of a draft constitution in March 2005, there is hope that the freedom of press envisaged within it will become a reality. Associations of young and dynamic journalists in exile are no longer willing to accept the denial of freedom of expression.

In the Maldives, the tight rein on the media by President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, one of Asia’s longest-ruling heads of state, showed no sign of loosening. President Gayoom’s proposals of February 2005 to introduce political reform cannot address the lack of democracy that arises from denying important democratic values including multi-party democracy, the denial of registration of political parties and civil society groups, and unrelenting suppression of media freedom.

Although Fathimath Nisreen and Ahmed Didi of the banned Dhivehi language online publication, Sandhaanu, were released in the past year, Minivan journalist Jennifer Latheef continues to serve a 10-year prison term for her alleged ‘terrorist act’, even as international campaigns mount for her release. The obstacle of centralised authority remains, and political silencing of dissidents continues.

On April 18, 2006, Minivan’s sub-editor, Nazim Sattar, was summoned to court and sentenced in what could be the beginning of the end for Maldives’ only opposition daily newspaper. And a day after, Abdullah Saeed (Fahala), another Minivan journalist, was sentenced to life in prison, despite claims that the charges against him are manufactured to gag his independent journalism.

Besides its crackdown on print and online publications, the government continues to jam the independent Minivan Radio and broadcasts of a London-based radio station. It also blocks access to 30 websites based abroad. Several journalists, pro-democracy activists and political leaders have been forced into exile in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka itself has seen general erosion of the due process of law, democratic governance and peace. Basic freedoms, such as the right to life, are being severely curtailed in certain parts of the island. The overarching loss of human security, with the anxiety of another outbreak of civil war, and government opposition to news reports that criticise its approach to the peace process, has resulted in a culture of self-censorship.

Though the last year was pivotal in energising provincial media to support holistic media reform initiatives, it was nevertheless one in which the continuing erosion of media freedoms on account of violence and conflict held back some of this progress.

Four media workers – all Tamil – were killed in Sri Lanka, and many were assaulted during the past 12 months. These killings have contributed to a growing fear amongst the Tamil media community.

Up until recently the Sri Lankan media has been part of the problem, with most of the media polarised on ethnic and political lines. Covering the conflict in a fair and balanced manner still remains one of the major challenges facing the Sri Lankan media. The ethnic conflict has claimed more than 60,000 lives, displaced nearly one million people and caused billions of rupees (tens of millions of US dollars) destruction. The human cost of the war is still mounting, as the country is witnessing an undeclared intensity in the conflict.

Political, religious, and terrorist groups also create a dangerous working environment for journalists in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, where journalists have been victims of kidnapping, illegal detention and murder. Blasphemy laws are also used to silence journalists who question religious fundamentalism.

In Afghanistan, journalists were subjected to intimidation and threats by the security forces. Three reporters were arrested in July 2005 by national security officers while reporting the crash of a US Army helicopter. They were confined in a small room without food or water for two days and detained without charge for a further nine days by the National Security department. Similarly, journalists with al Jazeera TV were arrested by US forces and then handed over to Afghan national police and put in a lockup for five hours.

In Pakistan, independent coverage of military operations in the tribal areas is next to impossible due to threats and intimidation. The tribal areas have become ‘no go areas’ for foreigncorrespondents, and with the absence of local stringers it has become almost impossible to get factual reports about military operations and militants’ activities.

The Pakistani media lost three lives as a result of the October 8, 2005 earthquake that devastated the Kashmir region. The earthquake killed more than 87,000, people, mostly in Pakistanadministered areas of the disputed Kashmir region. Approximately 50 journalists based in Balakot, Muzzafarabad, Karachi and Islamabad have been identified as killed, missing, injured, or directly affected by the earthquake through the loss of family members, their homes or in many
cases both.

In Bangladesh, intimidation and harassment from politicians, the police, criminals and religious fundamentalists continued to dominate the country’s media landscape. The impunity and lack of accountability of those who committed grave violations of journalists’ rights is symptomatic of widespread lawlessness and lack of governance. Disturbingly, those who attempt to expose corruption and criminal activities often fall victim to these very elements.

In India too, journalists in the conflict-affected areas of Kashmir and the northeast bore the brunt of attacks by insurgent groups unhappy with their reports. Besides these politically volatile ‘hot spots’, Indian journalists were also targeted by right-wing fundamentalist groups unhappy with their reportage.

As many as 20 journalists in South Asia were killed in the line of duty from May 2005 - April 2006. Four in Afghanistan, two in Bangladesh, five in India, one in Nepal, four in Pakistan and four in Sri Lanka.

Pressure through policy and law
The media came under fire not only through direct attacks, but also through policy changes aimed at throttling free speech.

Governments across South Asia tightened legislative and policy level controls over the media, in an attempt to legitimize the suppression of media freedoms. In May 2005, the National Assembly in Pakistan passed the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority Amendment Bill (2004) (PEMRA). The PEMRA can impose a ban on channels in the name of ‘national interest’, ‘national security’, ‘ideology of Pakistan’ and ‘vulgarity’ – all of which are subjective notions.

In January 2006 the Pakistani Government introduced amendments to the press council legislation, which changed the press council from an independent and voluntary body to a ‘special court’ that could be used against the press.

King Gyanendra of Nepal, in October 2005, promulgated an Ordinance amending six of Nepal’s key pieces of media-related legislation, which increased government control over the media. The Ordinance was renewed in April 2006 amidst protests from national and international organisations.

The Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO) in Nepal was extended in April 2005. In addition, the Public Security Act continues to be used to arbitrarily detain journalists who dare to express pro-democracy views.

The global trend of enacting tougher anti-terrorism and public security laws was also seen in India, with the passing of the Chattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, in March 2006. The controversial Act prohibits the media from reporting any activities that can be termed as ‘unlawful activities’. In effect, it bars the media from reporting on any activities of the banned Maoist party in the strife torn state of Chattisgarh.

Similarly, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, amended after the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was repealed, also contains several draconian measures that could curb democratic rights. The Communal Violence (Suppression) Bill, 2005 currently pending in parliament appears to be a combination of two draconian laws – POTA and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, giving the government and the armed forces unbridled powers that could severely restrict
democratic freedoms and press freedom.

In Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal, the archaic Official Secrets Act prohibits the disclosure of ‘official secrets’ which have a very wide definition. Threats to use the Act continue to be made against independent media. In Sri Lanka, the Press Council Law 1973 prohibits, among other things, publication of cabinet decisions, cabinet documents, certain defence and security matters, and certain fiscal measures and makes it an offence for a newspaper to publish certain

Contempt of court continues to be used against free expression, especially when raising issues of accountability of the judiciary in India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, with several journalists, editors, human rights activists and politicians in these countries currently facing contempt charges. Freedom of Information (FOI) has yet to be established as a practice across most of South Asia. The Sri Lankan Government has still not addressed the issue of FOI despite being presented a
legal draft for a Freedom of Information Act, which was passed by the cabinet in December 2003. Nepal’s draft legislation languishes while the parliament stands dissolved.

In India, the Indian Parliament took a positive step by passing the Right to Information Act, 2005, establishing the citizen’s right to know, however the introduction of a new category of government bodies that will be outside the purview of the law – intelligence and security agencies established by state governments – must be viewed with disquiet.

Political control over state-owned media is a South Asian phenomenon that has yet to be completely challenged. Although the president promised to depoliticise the state-owned media in Sri Lanka, the situation remains the same. The government-owned TV, radio stations and newspaper houses remain politically controlled and used as propaganda tools for the political parties in power instead of public service media. Democratisation of state-controlled media remains one of the major challenges for the media community in Sri Lanka.

In India, radio continues to be virtually a state monopoly, even as voices clamouring for privatisation and community ownership are getting louder. Following a Supreme Court ruling in 1995 that declared airwaves to be public property, citizens groups and activists began pushing for legislation that would free the airwaves from government control. By restricting the airwaves, India lags behind neighbouring Nepal which launched South Asia’s first community radio station in 1995.

In October 2005, the Indian Government referred the matter of community radio to a group of ministers deferring the matter yet again. In Phase II the plan is to allow both nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society groups to obtain licences to start radio stations. For the past four years or so the country has seen intense lobbying to amend current government policy which only allows educational institutions to run community radio. Political news and current affairs are still prohibited, but informative broadcasts aimed at various community users will be permitted.

Steps forward
Yet, the picture is not entirely bleak.

In a positive step forward in Afghanistan, the new policy for government-owned media outlets such as National Television/Radio and the Bakhtar news agency paves the way for an independent media. The policy frees the two institutions from direct government control, and recommends the establishment of a commission to monitor the broadcasts of National Television/Radio broadcasting and other outlets.

In India, the enactment of the Contempt of Courts (Amendment) Bill, 2006 was a welcome step. It introduced truth as a justification for contempt of court, thus allowing journalists a legal defense for their investigative stories.

The 23-member commission, established by the Afghan Government in August 2005 to inquire into the national media law, is a welcome sign that media policies and laws in tune with contemporary needs may be in the pipeline.

In Pakistan, Sadiq News, a newsletter of the Rural Media Network of Pakistan published with technical assistance from UNESCO’s International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and the Nawa-i-Ahmedpur Sharqia newspaper was launched in December 2005. The Urdu-language newsletter includes information on press freedom violations, ethics and training, and is also a tool to help rural journalists learn about their rights and network with colleagues.

The media in South Asia has risen to the challenge of keeping citizens informed, of taking the leadership role in movements for democracy and good governance. Within countries, journalists’ organisations have demonstrated commitment to building understanding and alliances across the sub-continent. In an historic commitment to media reform, five of Sri Lanka’s leading journalist associations came together to sign a landmark media charter in a joint expression of solidarity in November 2005.

Journalists in India and Pakistan have contributed to the peace process by attempting to overcome more than half a century of bitterness, bridge the chasm of misunderstanding created by jingoistic nationalism, and instead work together as professionals dedicated to informing their communities with balanced, diverse and fair reporting.

Journalist’s organisations across the region have in one voice demanded a restoration of democracy in Nepal, and have stood firm behind their Nepalese colleagues. The outpouring of support – both moral and financial – to Pakistani colleagues affected by the devastating earthquake in October is also representative of an emerging sense of community amongst South Asian journalists.

It is this solidarity among journalists, and their commitment to the craft and principles of professional journalism and the communities they inform, which continues to shine the light in the struggle to maintain and strengthen press freedom in South Asia.

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is based in Brussels, Belgium. The above is the "Overview" of the report entitled Journalism in troubled times: The struggle for press freedom in South Asia 2005-2006, launched on May 3, 2006.

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Brihát Śhānti Sámjhautā, 2006
(Comprehensive Peace Agreement)

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