REGIONS:

PRESS FREEDOM DETERIORATING IN NEPAL'S NEW DEMOCRACY, SAYS INTERNATIONAL MISSION

Last month, Uma Singh, a Nepali reporter, was stabbed repeatedly by a gang of around 15 unidentified men in her home in Janakpur, southern Nepal. To this day, no motive has been identified, although IFEX members fear she may have been targeted for her work. Some of her articles made waves in the region, particularly those in which she criticised the caste and dowry system or the ongoing violence in the Terai region, where armed groups have been fighting for the establishment of an autonomous Madhesi state.

Singh's death sparked an emergency international media mission to Nepal on 5-8 February, which found that press freedom in Nepal continues to be threatened - despite the hope that democratic rule introduced last year would improve the situation.

The International Media Mission, hosted by the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) and other Nepali media organisations, called on the authorities to undertake prompt, independent and impartial investigations into Singh's case, and all cases of attacks on journalists.

According to FNJ, a staggering 342 press freedom violations were recorded in 2008, including a significant escalation in the number of physical attacks on journalists and media houses whose perpetrators go unpunished. This does not so much represent a rise in attacks on the media but a change in the nature of the attacks, more of which are being committed by non-state actors, says ARTICLE 19.

"The authorities are failing in their duty to prevent, punish and redress the harm caused by such attacks," said the mission. "The links between political parties and some of the perpetrators of these violent acts are a matter of serious concern and would indicate the acceptance, and possible complicity, of those political parties in the violence."

Take the case of journalist, Prakash Singh Thakuri, who has been missing since July 2007. Late last year the government withdrew charges against his accused kidnapper, who was released on bail.

Likewise, the mission raised its concerns over the detention of Reporters' Club President Rishi Dhamala, saying that the administration failed to adhere to proper legal procedures while detaining Dhamala and three other journalists.

The mission also reports that not a single person has been convicted for a criminal act against journalists and media houses.

The mission says the ongoing attacks are having a chilling effect on press freedom, with journalists and media being forced into self-censorship, "seriously jeopardising the peace and democratisation process currently underway in the country."

Conditions for women journalists like Singh, already seriously underrepresented in the profession, are of particular concern, says the mission, as they are more vulnerable to attack. They are being forced to leave their work and sometimes to move away from home due to such pressures.

In a meeting with the mission delegates, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal assured them that Thakuri's case would be reopened. He said the recent attacks on journalists and the culture of impunity are the legacy of the 10-year-old conflict to overthrow the institution of monarchy, and maintained that his government is committed to a free press, which will be reflected in the new constitution.

But former Prime Minister and main opposition party Nepali Congress (NC) President Giirja Prasad said otherwise. In a separate meeting with the mission, he accused the current Maoist-led government of remaining "a mute-spectator to continuing attacks on the press" and said the country was no different now than under the totalitarian rule of former monarch Gyanendra Shah.

The mission is urging the government and political parties to implement its recommendations as outlined in "An Agenda for Change", a comprehensive programme for media reform in Nepal prepared by an expert panel of media professionals, legal practitioners, civil society leaders and lawmakers - a joint initiative of FNJ, ARTICLE 19 and Freedom Forum.

Some of the 60 recommendations include the guarantee of free expression and press freedom in the new constitution and in line with international human rights standards, government action to protect journalists, proper enforcement of the Right to Information Act, the abolishment of criminal defamation, and the creation of a committee to deal with reforms outlined in the document.

The International Mission is made up of 15 international organisations. On the latest visit, the mission was represented by ARTICLE 19, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), the World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC), International Media Support (IMS) and UNESCO.

Visit these links:
- Mission statement: http://tinyurl.com/dllaor
- "An Agenda for Change": http://tinyurl.com/c9uwmb
- IFEX Nepal page: http://tinyurl.com/3ykcoq
- ekantipur.com, "PM Dahal asks not to doubt gov't commitment on free press": http://www.ekantipur.com/kolnews.php?&nid=179034
- sindhtoday.net, "International Media Mission visits Nepal": http://www.sindhtoday.net/south-asia/60328.htm
(Photo of Uma Singh, courtesy of IPI)

(11 February 2009)

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