CAPSULE REPORT: CPJ concerned about rise in unpunished attacks, urges government to address climate of impunity
February 17, 2009
Rt. Honorable Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal
Office of the Prime Minister and Council of Ministers
Dear Prime Minister Dahal:
On December 29, your government signed an agreement with local press freedom group the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), ending a week of protest by journalists against a series of attacks on media outlets which peaked in late December. That agreement promised that those attacks would be addressed.
Yet nearly two months on, conditions for journalists continue to deteriorate. Your government must urgently address the climate of impunity for violence against journalists that threatens Nepal's media.
Involvement by cadres of your Maoists' Unified Communist Party of Nepal or their supporters is suspected in the 2008 murder of Janadisha editor and Maoist activist J.P. Joshi, who reported on local party disputes, and the 2007 killing of Birendra Shah in Bara district, central Nepal. Local journalists and civil society groups investigating January's brutal killing of radio and print journalist Uma Singh, in Janakpur in the Terai plains region, now suspect local Maoists had a hand in her death, too. Among other suggested motives, including a family dispute over land, Nepal's National Human Rights Commission suspects she was silenced by Maoist workers, who allegedly abducted and murdered her father and brother in 2006, according to the My Republica news Web site.
Nepal places eighth on CPJ's Impunity Index, which tallies countries that consistently fail to prosecute journalist murders. As the leader of the coalition government, and as head of your party, you have a unique responsibility for reversing this trend. We urge you to obtain justice in older murder cases, such as that of Dailekh district's state Radio Nepal correspondent Dekendra Raj Thapa, who many local journalists believe was murdered by Maoists in August 2004. Although Thapa's body was discovered and exhumed last year, his killers have not yet been brought to justice.
Non-fatal but nonetheless gravely serious attacks on the press are reported with alarming frequency by media outlets and local press freedom groups throughout Nepal. Often targeting Nepali-language media and taking place outside the capital, Kathmandu, these incidents do not always draw the attention of the international community. Fear of repetition or escalation of these attacks breeds self-censorship among journalists, who sometimes avoid publicizing violent acts beyond their local communities.
Kathmandu-based newspapers are emphasizing the climate of fear building in the media community nationwide as reports of these attacks accumulate. "Things were never this bad for the Nepali media: not in the conflict years, not even during the royal emergency," according to Kailali district FNJ leader Dirgharaj Upadhyay in a recent Nepali Times editorial. "It was much easier to fight the ham-handed autocrat king," veteran journalist Kanak Mani Dixit wrote on My Republica, highlighting "an infrastructure of impunity and absence of accountability that is more entrenched than ever before."
When your government acknowledges these incidents, it denies involvement. Yet unpunished violence by Maoist sympathizers contributes to an environment in which acts of aggression against journalists - whether overtly politicized or otherwise - appear to be sanctioned by your leadership. Both the frequency and the methods used in attacks carried out by your supporters provide a model for those undertaken by other political and criminal groups. This seriously undermines the rule of law, and negates your public efforts to negotiate peace with militant groups in the Terai region. They, in turn, embrace the same tactics.
In public comments you all but dismissed December's attack on the offices of the prominent publisher Himalmedia in Lalitpur, near Kathmandu, carried out by a group described in local news reports as Maoist trade unionists. Two days after that attack, members of a youth group belonging to the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist - a member of your coalition government - set fire to thousands of copies of Ankush daily in Parsa district, according to local news reports. The group stormed the paper's offices after it published an article about the party's local government representative. "You can't publish whatever you like," they told the staff, according to a report on the Kantipur Online Web site.
This week, a group of students followed that approach. "We could do anything against those writing and airing news against us," the students, who were not given a political affiliation in published reports, told staff at Tinau FM radio in Rupandehi district when they seized control of station offices for an hour on February 10, according to Kantipur Online. They had taken issue with a news item about a student charged with vandalism, according to Kantipur and the local branch of the Federation of Nepali Journalists. The same day, students also broke into the offices of Mechikali newspaper, where they burned 1,000 copies of the newspaper for carrying the same story, according to the reports.
"Five journalists around the country presently face credible death threats," Dixit wrote on February 2 for My Republica. His brother, Kunda Dixit, was among those targeted in the Himalmedia attack. On February 3, journalists in Saptari district in the Terai plains staged a protest against the local administration for failing to arrest an activist belonging to a local Terai armed group. Jitendra Khadka, a local correspondent for Kantipur Publications, said a person identifying himself as the activist had threatened to kill him over a report he had written about a clash between the group's supporters and local businessmen, but police did not follow up. Saptari journalists have since censored stories about armed groups, according to a My Republica report. "There [has] never been such widespread self-censorship here," according to the Republica report, published February 10 from Janakpur in the wake of Uma Singh's murder. "Panic-stricken women journalists in the region are starting to quit their profession," according to a Kantipur Online report on February 11.
Until your government takes the lead to instigate thorough investigations and prosecutions of attacks on journalists, anyone with a grievance against the media will be emboldened to terrorize news outlets and their staff. If the media succumbs to this intimidation, the country's attempts to establish democracy will have proven a failure. Justices at the Patan Appellate Court awarded 15,000 rupees (US$200) in compensation to journalist Mina Tiwari Sharma on February 10 after determining she was wrongfully held in 2002 during the state of emergency declared by the former king of Nepal, according to local news reports. The editor of Eikyavaddatha newspaper was held along with several journalists accused of links with Maoist groups. During Nepal's decade-long civil war, many news outlets strove for objectivity, incorporating the then-rebel Maoist viewpoint, to the point where it endangered their security.
Bringing justice to individual journalists who were imprisoned in the past is an appropriate way for your government to redress these wrongs. The same applies to present-day crimes against the press. Prosecute those who attack journalists, across the political and social spectrum, so that journalists who express the same objectivity today are not persecuted. We look forward to your reply.
Minister for Information and Communication, Krishna Bahadur