Nepali Journalists Regain Freedom, Not Safety
Nepali journalists regained their freedom in 2007 but not their safety, says the annual 2008 report by RSF, the Paris-based media watchdog.
The overthrow of King Gyanendra and the signing of a peace agreement in 2006 led to the hope that 2007 would bring real change, particularly for journalists, who had previously suffered so much ill-treatment. But an outbreak of ethnic violence in the south and blunders by some Maoist cadres left two dead and scores of injured among the media. It was a year of contrasts for Nepali journalists who regained their freedom but not their safety.
The 2006 peace agreement with the Maoists was rapidly overshadowed by violence in the south of the country where the Madhesi people protested against the government which it said had treated them unfairly. Journalists, particularly correspondents for national media, who were accused of being in cahoots with the “powerful in the capital”, lived through hell. Around 100 of them were physically assaulted, threatened or forced to flee after being threatened by Madhesi militants who grew ever more radical. Lists of “wanted” journalists along with rewards were posted up in the southern town of Birgunj at the end of January. A dozen reporters left the Parsa, Bara and Rautatah districts, in fear of their lives.
Elsewhere the Maoists blew hot and cold towards the press. After the Maoists pulled out of government in September, groups of trade unionists and young Maoists launched a campaign of threats against the media. Some party leaders imposed a reign of fear throughout whole regions, preventing journalists from working freely. But a return to government by the former rebels at the end of December, after securing a transition towards a republic, gave rise to hopes of a reduction in violence in 2008.
Wave of brutality in the Terai
No fewer than 70 journalists were assaulted or threatened by different armed groups in the Terai (South) between January and June, seeking either to silence them or force them to become spokespersons. Rioters beat three journalists and a photographer taking pictures in the streets of Morang in the south on 29 January. The previous evening partly, demonstrators destroyed the radio station FM Birgunj as well as the offices of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) in Birgunj. Journalists reacted by going on strike.
The authorities, who were overwhelmed and on occasion complicit, proved themselves incapable of protecting journalists or arresting those responsible for the violence. The Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum (MJAF) sowed fear by publishing lists of journalists accused of being “traitors”. Correspondents for Nepal Television, Radio Nepal, Kantipur Publications and Nepal FM 91.8 were targeted at the end of January. The MJAF alone was responsible for at least 25 assaults on journalists in 2007. In March, an even more radical organisation, the Madhesi Tiger Nepal (MTN), threatened reprisals against journalists in Nepalgunj if they tried to cover a strike. This organisation blocked circulation of local publications and distribution of national media.
Members of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha party (JTMM) threatened staff at Narayani FM and Radio Birgunj in June, for failing to broadcast news about a strike they had launched. The same group had been responsible for kidnapping Rajendra Rai and Dewaan Rai, of the Auzaar National Daily in January. In April, another group, the JTMM-G, called on members of its revolutionary group to “physically attack” journalists working for Image Channel Television and radio Image FM. The two media had both put out reports on their abuses.
Security forces showed more restraint towards the press than previously but some incidents brought back memories of their past methods. In July, Bhojraj Basnet and Ambika Bhandari, two journalists on the Samyantra Weekly, were attacked by two police officers in Belbari, eastern Nepal, after it carried an article headlined, “this is how police collect their bribes”. Both journalists fled the town.
Two journalists killed by Maoist leaders
Maoist cadres demonstrated their ruthlessness towards the press. At least five journalists were kidnapped and two were killed by former rebels. The trade unionists and young Maoists used different method of harassing independent media, whom they accused of damaging them or defending the monarchy.
Maoist leaders finally acknowledged at a press conference on 5 November that party cadres had abducted and murdered journalist Birendra Shah, 34, of Nepal FM, Dristri Weekly and Avenues TV in Bara, central Nepal. After a month of silence and lies, the Maoists established that the journalist had been beaten to death on the day he was kidnapped by Lal Bahadur Chaudhary, member of the Maoist regional committee of Bara, central Nepal. Two other party cadres, Kundan Faujdar and Ram Ekwal Sahani, helped kidnap and kill the reporter.
On the other hand, the Maoists have never publicly admitted to the 5 July kidnapping of Prakash Singh Thakuri, from the daily Aajako Samachar in Kanchanpur in western Nepal. The spokesman for the hitherto unknown armed group, the National Republican Army said on 8 July that it had killed Prakash Thakuri, justifying his killing on the basis of his articles favourable to the king. But his wife said she was convinced that the Young Communist League, affiliated to the Maoist party, were the instigators of the kidnapping. Police arrested one of them, Pomlal Sharma. The Maoists denied all involvement in the case. The journalist’s body has not been found.
A third journalist killed during the year, Shankar Panthi, was however working for the pro-Maoist newspaper Naya Satta Daily in Sunawal, in western Nepal. Police who found his body on the roadside on 14 September initially believed that he was the victim of an accident, his bicycle having apparently been struck by a car. But following protests from his family and the Association of Revolutionary Journalists, police accepted that his death had not been an accident.
Maoists kidnapped at least three other journalists including in October a reporter on Mahakali FM, Pappu Gurund, who was held captive for three days in Dodhara, western Nepal along with his wife. Gurund said his captors threatened him with reprisals if he did not give up his profession.
Blockades and sabotage
The Maoists departure from government in September fuelled tension with privately-owned media. Maoist trade unions held a series of strikes, against those they believed favourable to their opponents.
First in July and then again in August, the dailies, The Himalayan Times and the Annapurna Post were not distributed for several days because the pro-Maoist union, All Nepal Communication, Printing and Publication Workers Union (ANCPPWU), imposed a blockade to punish it for publishing critical articles. Union leaders announced they would “kill anyone who distributes the two dailies”. During a peaceful demonstration held by the Nepal Press Union on 9 August, 25 journalists were beaten up by members of the Young Communist League in Kathmandu.
The press group Kantipur in its turn became a target of unions affiliated to the Maoist party who in September blocked circulation of newspapers, threatened staff and committed serious acts of sabotage. Using salary demands as justification, the campaign led militants of the ANCPPWU to sabotage an electric system at the Kantipur group’s printers and to try to torch one of the group’s buildings in the capital. During a demonstration, one Maoist leader said, “The Nepalese won’t die of lack of news from Kantipur. We don’t need their news, nor their journalists either (...) we are ready within an hour to assemble one hundred thousand workers to attack Kantipur”. At the same time, Maoists set fire to one thousand copies of the newspaper in Bharatpur and Pokhara in central Nepal and at Biratnagar in the east of the country.
The Editors Alliance, a new organisation created by the management of the country’s leading privately-owned newspapers in response to the constant threats, spoke out against a “sinister scenario of intimidation and threats against journalists” by organisations affiliated to the Maoist party.
A return to peace in 2008?
The Maoists re-entry to government in December has given rise to fresh hope for a more peaceful year in 2008. But general elections scheduled during the year could again stoke up violence in regions where armed groups have imposed their will.
Moreover, a generalised climate of impunity in connection with murders committed during the long years of civil war has allowed the security forces as much as the Maoists to get away with murders and disappearances of journalists.
Throughout the year, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) has played a crucial role in exposing and condemning violence against the press, including through its investigations and on-the-spot mediation efforts. The FNJ also pushed for the adoption by the interim parliament in July of a law on the right to access to information. This guarantees all citizens access to information about public bodies and provides for the creation of a national information commission responsible for the application of the new law. In the same way, the adoption of the law on working journalists was made possible in August thanks to the efforts of professional bodies and gives better protection to media employees.
The Asian Scenario
The Asian continent turned into a battlefield for journalists in 2007, with 17 killed during the year and nearly 600 assaulted or faced with death threats. In Pakistan alone, security forces arrested 250 reporters, frequently clubbing them first, for covering marches organised against President Pervez Musharraf or at their own demonstrations against restrictions imposed on them under the state of emergency. In Sri Lanka, several senior figures on the Tamil-language newspaper Uthayan lived holed up at their offices for fear of being gunned down in the streets of Jaffna where paramilitaries have sown terror. In Burma, soldiers ordered to restore order in September shot dead a Japanese reporter and hunted down Burmese cameramen and photographers.
Asia has never had so many privately-owned TV and radio stations and news websites, all trying to provide the public with news of which they have been deprived for so long. Seven of the world ten highest circulation dailies are now Asian and the continent boasts the largest number of Internet-users.
Who could have imagined that footage of public executions in North Korea would one day be broadcast by international television? Who could have expected to see dozens of Burmese journalists smuggling reports out of the country from victims of atrocities by the ruling junta? However, the authorities continue to do their utmost to restrict access to sensitive regions. Journalists find it impossible to reach the scene of clashes between the army and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, or the tribal zones between Pakistan and Afghanistan, or some Chinese and Tibetan villages shaken by demonstrations.
Dictators and other self-proclaimed presidents have been responsible for brutality and bad faith in countering the emergence of free media. Master of this medium, Pervez Musharraf has presented himself as the “last bulwark of democracy”, while allowing his secret services to kidnap and torture journalists. He also, in November, ordered the banning of all privately-owned television and radio. The tyrant of Pyongyang, Kim Jong-il, decided on appeasement of the international community in relation to his nuclear programme, while allowing the most outrageous mistreatment to prevent North Koreans having contacts abroad. One man was executed for having made a phone call to a foreign country and international and dissident radios in Korean were systematically jammed.
This wave of damaging footage for governments prompted some very virulent counter-attacks. In Bangladesh, when the interim government was faced with demonstrations, it ordered independent television stations to remove news bulletins and talk shows from their schedules.
In the run-up to the 17th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October, the Propaganda Department began bringing liberal media to heel and closing thousands of websites, blogs and discussion forums. Not one of the promises made by the authorities to secure the 2008 Olympics was kept. At least 180 foreign journalists were arrested, physically assaulted or threatened in China, even though at the time the games was awarded in 2001 an official said: “There will be total freedom of the press”. And 15 Chinese journalists and cyber-dissidents were arrested in 2007 for “inciting subversion” or “disclosing state secrets”.
Vietnam’s sole political party set out to get rid of leaders of opposition movements, including those of underground publications which started in 2006. Around a dozen journalists and cyber-dissidents were given prison sentences during the year. While in Malaysia, the internal security ministry hounded media and arrested several bloggers and opposition columnists.
Beware of taboo subjects
It can be a dangerous business to: criticise the royal family in Thailand, to raise the problem of the influence of religion in Afghanistan, to oppose Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore or to expose corruption among those close to primer minister Hun Sen in Cambodia. As a result, Asian journalists are frequently driven to self-censorship. The law provides for long prison sentences, and even the death penalty, for those who take the risk of breaking religious political or social prohibitions.
A young journalist in the north of Afghanistan had this terrible experience in 2007. He was arrested for “blasphemy” and sentenced to death, while the Council of Mullahs put pressure on the authorities for even tighter control on the content of Afghan privately-owned TV. In Bangladesh, a cartoonist was imprisoned for innocent wordplay about the prophet Mohammed. A blogger was arrested in Bangkok for posting a remark about the Thai royal family. Finally, several Cambodian reporters were forced into exile after they investigated lucrative timber-trafficking involving relatives of the head of government.
Communist governments in particular use imprisonment of journalists and cyber-dissidents to punish critics and intimidate the rest of the profession. 55 reporters and Internet-users have been arrested in China since the country was awarded the Olympic Games in 2001. And Burma’s Win Tin is at 77 the world’s oldest imprisoned journalist. In total, almost two-thirds of the world’s imprisoned journalists are being held in Asia.
Censorship reaches into new technology
China is undoubtedly the most technically advanced country in terms of censorship and repression of the newest means of communication. Cyber-censors have continued to hound news websites as shown in Reporters Without Borders’ report, “Journey to the heart of Internet censorship”, which it released in 2007, based on information from a Chinese technician. A variety of state administrations imposed strict control on online content.
Bolstered by this success, the government extended its influence to blogs, for which the main hosts were forced to sign a self-discipline pact in 2007. Foreign-based independent news websites, such as the Boxun platform, fell victim to ferocious attacks by hackers emanating from China.
Chinese and Vietnamese dissidents continued to use the Internet and new technology to break out of the straitjackets in which they are held. The activist Hu Jia was arrested at the end of December a few weeks after giving evidence to the European Parliament via his webcam. He had been under house arrest for nearly a year. In Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh-City, journalists, lawyers and trade unionists were arrested for posting articles critical of the government online. Before his arrest, the lawyer Nguyen Van Dai had his own blog nguyenvandai.rsfblog.org. Despite filtering and surveillance, discussion forums in Vietnamese are full of political remarks and dissidents use Skype, paltalk and Facebook to communicate with one another.
The terrorist threat
The increase in suicide bombings by Al-Qaeda followers has created fresh dangers for the media, who have to closely cover the figures involved and sensitive events. Two Pakistan reporters got killed in this way in 2007. One died in the first suicide attack against Benazir Bhutto in Karachi and the other was killed by a bomber targeting the Pakistani interior minister.
Henchmen of Mullah Dadullah who cut the throats of the Afghan fixer and driver of Italian special correspondent Daniele Mastrogiacomo, then released him in exchange for several imprisoned Taliban leaders, created a precedent that only increased the risk run by journalists in southern and eastern Afghanistan. The murder of the respected head of Peace Radio, Zakia Zaki, stunned the entire profession and a botched investigation failed to find the perpetrators.
In Nepal, it was armed groups fighting for the rights of the Madhesi people in the south, who were responsible for creating terror. Some 100 journalists were assaulted, threatened or forced to flee the region. Hit lists of journalists to kill were posted up in some towns by Madhesi militants.
Impunity still holds sway
The authorities in Sri Lanka systematically blocked investigations into murder cases involving the press. Police made no attempt to probe further when suspects were indicated or vital clues found in the murders of two staff on the newspaper Uthayan or in the 2005 murder of Sivaram Dharmeratnam, the editor of Tamilnet. Pakistani authorities refused to reveal the conclusions of two investigations into the kidnapping and murder of Hayatullah Khan, a journalist from the tribal areas, whose widow was killed in 2007, as if to punish her for having sought justice in the murder of her husband, in which the secret services could be implicated.
It is rare for the determination of a judge to alter the course of history. An Australian judge concluded that the murder of five journalists in East Timor in 1975 was a war crime committed by Indonesian forces, after taking detailed evidence from dozens of witnesses, including a former Australian prime minister. But Jakarta immediately rejected his conclusions, thus prolonging the impunity of soldiers accused of atrocities in East Timor.
In the Philippines, Nena Santos, the courageous lawyer of murdered journalist, Marlene Esperat, succeeded in getting the justice system to investigate who ordered the killing. However this did not prevent two more journalists from being killed in 2007 by hit-men in the pay of corrupt politicians.
Posted by Editor on February 14, 2008 2:58 AM