Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Nepal : Journalism in unsettled times

Since the April 2008 elections that set up a Constituent Assembly to guide Nepal’s transition to a future of republican democracy, the country has had three governments. The first resigned in May 2009 and was followed by an unstable coalition that was deeply riven and finally quit in June 2010. The cabinet though, continued in a caretaker capacity for a record period of seven months while various rival combinations of parties that could
between them establish a parliamentary majority were tried. A coalition of the United Communist Party of Nepal Maoist (UPCN-M or simply Maoists) and the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML or simply UML) finally took office in February 2011, with the UML in the leadership role despite being the smaller partner. Early disagreements about portfolio-sharing caused some worries about the long-term stability of the alliance, and these remain to be worked through. Writing of the constitution has been delayed beyond its target date and the term of the Constituent Assembly ends on 28 May 2011. Agreement remains elusive on the two key issues that divide Nepal’s main political parties: the integration of the Maoist combatants into the structures of the new order and the devolution of power within Nepal’s diverse ethnic and regional mosaic.
The ceasefire of 2006 and the aftermath of the 2008 elections were seen by the country’s journalists as an opportune moment to build a legal framework that would promote the healthy growth of the media, on firm foundations of the public interest and the right to free speech. Nepal’s journalists and their organisations played a central role in both resisting the repression that was unleashed during the years of royal absolutism and turning back the tide by creating a popular movement for the restoration of democracy. Since the ceasefire, the journalists’ community has secured legally protected rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association. Journalists were key participants in lobbying for and successfully securing the passage of a right to information law.
The momentum for positive change has since been lost. Journalists in Nepal still face enormous challenges, not the least of them being security. Though formally ended, the Maoist insurgency has, in certain perceptions, implanted a cult of violence and spawned numerous militant groups which are smaller, uncoordinated and hence more dangerous. State institutions and authorities have shown a limited ability to protect lives and assure people of security. Maoist elements that are keen to enter the political mainstream and participate in democratic politics feel betrayed that there is no sense of accountability for the years of royal absolutism and its structural and often hidden violence against the poor and the underprivileged.

Caught in crossfire

The coalition that took office following the resignation of the Maoist led government in May 2009 had little popular legitimacy. A succession of Maoist-led protests seeking to force the resignation of this coalition government, turned violent during May 2010 and several journalists were injured in the ensuing affrays. These protests and a nationwide general strike forced then Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal of the UML to resign in June, though as mentioned, the transition to a new government took inordinately long .
On May 5, Maoist supporters attacked the assistant editor of Shikshak monthly, Sudarshan Ghimire, in Kathmandu.
In similar incidents during that cycle of political protests, Gyanendra Niraula, a correspondent for the Purbanchal daily, was assaulted in Jhapa and Kashi Ram Sharma, correspondent for the state-owned news agency in Surkhet, was attacked in Birendranagar. Ramesh Chandra Adhikari, a correspondent of the Kantipur daily in Dhankuta, was threatened by Maoist cadre over a news item that had appeared under his name.
In most of these cases, the journalists had identified themselves as media workers but were attacked regardless.
Among those to bear the brunt of the violence unleashed during these protests was journalist and cameraman Sri Krishna Phuyal, who was attacked in Gogabu in Nepal’s Central Region on May 6.
The Maoist leadership issued a statement on May 8 that included a criticism of the media for its supposed hostility. The implicit threat of retribution inflamed further violence against journalists. On May 10, Avenues Television cameraman Rabindra Shrestha and Associated News Agency photographer Prabin Mahajan were reportedly beaten by a group of political activists at a demonstration outside the Nepali Parliament. Shrestha was seriously injured after being hit with metal rods and sticks and his camera was destroyed.
Towards the end of May, Maoist activists burnt copies of the Nagarik and Republica dailies in Kathmandu, allegedly because of stories published about a Maoist hand in the kidnapping of a hospital director. Maoists also disrupted newspaper distribution in sections of the country, according to their publishers.
The southern plains bordering India (the Terai) remain the arena where the most serious contestations of identity politics are taking place. And this is where attacks on journalists have been a recurrent phenomenon. In March 2011, Pawan Yadav, a correspondent for the Nepali-language Kantipur Daily, was threatened allegedly by close aides of a local Maoist MP over articles he had written. Around the same time, Nepal Samacharpatra journalist Deepak Gautam was warned by the Chief District Officer of Parsa in the Terai of possible criminal action for arms smuggling and drug dealing, after he published reports suggesting serious corruption in the local administration.
The previous month saw two journalists Ram Pukar Raut and Pravin Sharma Jha, who bring out a local weekly, being arrested in Rautahat district, in the eastern Terai, and charged with illicit links to a banned underground armed group. The arrests followed the weekly’s publication of a press release put out by the underground group.
SAMSN partner and IFJ affiliate, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) believed that the arrests were in retaliation for a number of articles published in the weekly exposing corruption in the local administration and police.
Rautahat, a district bordering India, is believed to be a transit point for contraband traffic and Raut and Jha had suggested in their reports that local police may be complicit in smuggling.
Journalists recognise that the post-conflict situation in Nepal does not yet bear sufficient assurance that there will not be a relapse into violence. They characterise the current situation as one where the potential for violence is inherent in the delicacy of the political transition underway.
And the institutions that could mediate between the competing demands and beliefs of different groups are yet to be built up.

Radio operators murdered

Three radio operators were killed in Nepal between February and July 2010, indicating that the environment for journalists is becoming progressively more unsettled. In the most recent of these, Devi Prasad Dhital, chairman of Tulsipur radio in the mid-western district of Dang was shot dead on 12 July 2010. At the time of his murder, Dhital was campaigning for elections to the local village committee of the Nepali Congress (NC) party, of which he had been an ordinary member for fifteen years. The NC was then a coalition partner in Nepal’s interim caretaker government, but local investigators were convinced that the election Dhital was campaigning for was not a high-stakes contest, being merely about local delegates to the provincial and national conventions.
Tulsipur FM, run by a trust that Dhital chaired, is a community radio station set up in 2005 with international donor assistance. The station has since been running on local advertising revenue, which amounts to roughly NPR 250,000 (USD 3,300) a month. The station employs 17 journalists and manages to break even with a certain nominal level of donor assistance for content generation.
Government ad placements also contribute significantly to the radio station’s viability.
Early in 2010, a journalist working in Tulsipur FM, Narayan Khadka, received a threat via telephone after the station ran a story on a local criminal gang, calling itself the “Tigers”, which had burnt down a village school that refused to comply with its extortion demands. Khadka sought refuge in Kathmandu and returned to Tulsipur only after he was assured that the threat had abated. Local police acknowledge that the “Tigers” are a criminal group that has long been under surveillance and has been, to a great extent, neutralised. Several months on, the Dhital murder remains unsolved. The sole witness to the crime and her family have long since left their home in Tulsipur for fear of their lives. Police rule out any motive connected to Dhital’s chairmanship of a radio station, but without the murderer being found and the motive established, difficulties remain with this theory.
Chairman of National Television Nepal, Yunus Ansari, who was being held in the Sundhara Central Jail on charges of counterfeiting and drug-dealing, was shot at on 10 March 2011 by a visitor but survived the attack. News reports tended to rule out any connection between his role as a radio station head and the attempt on his life. Jasjeet Singh, from just across the border in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, admitted to being paid INR 1.5 million (USD 33,500) to carry out the contract killing. The attack was thought, in local media reports, to bear a similarity in terms of motive, to the daylight murder of TV entrepreneur Jamim Shah in Kathmandu in February 2010. The fact that the assailant managed to carry a firearm into the jail through several layers of security suggested complicity at very high levels in prison hierarchy.

Investigations lacklustre

As with human rights violations during the years of conflict, impunity has been the norm when it has come to investigating the murder of journalists during the period of transition. A commission of inquiry was set up to ascertain the truth behind the killing of journalist JP Joshi in late 2008, with the explicit mandate that findings would be made available within fifteen days. After repeated extensions, the committee finally submitted a report late in 2009, only to have it vanish under a shroud of official secrecy. Late in 2010, an application under the Right to Information law by Ramji Dahal of the fortnightly paper, Himal Khabar Patrika, revealed that the commission had spent NPR 3 million (USD 40,800) on its sittings, including in the acquisition of SIM cards for members’ mobile phones. All this time Joshi’s impoverished family had received absolutely no financial support, Ramji Dahal’s investigations found. Soon after these reports were published, Nepal’s cabinet met to approve financial support of the order of NPR 1.5 million (USD 20,400) for Joshi’s family.
The conduct of the committee constituted to inquire into Joshi’s murder has been referred to the Commission for Investigation of the Abuse of Authority, a special body created under the 1991 constitution and expected to function as a vital part of the process of national reconciliation after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006.
Reporting on the land seizures that took place during the years of civil war could also prove hazardous, as illustrated by the tragic case of Uma Singh, murdered in the Terai town of Janakpur in January 2009. Because of the international attention her brutal killing elicited, the local authorities moved quickly to arrest some among those suspected of involvement. The story was then put by the local police that the killing was related a family quarrel rather than her pioneering reporting on the continuing iniquity of land seizures during a supposed period of reconciliation and peace. The main suspect in Uma Singh’s murder reportedly still roams free in the border region with India. Police have failed to bring him in because of the vast political influence he exercises. Meanwhile, the five who were arrested in deference to nation-wide and international outrage, continue to languish in prison.
Arun Singhaniya, chairman and part owner of the Janakpur Today Media Group, which runs the local FM station and newspaper that Uma Singh worked with, was shot dead in March 2010 in a busy part of Janakpur.
In a grim sequel in July 2010, Pramod Shah, director of Radio Janakpur, was brutally assaulted at his home by a group of about eleven persons armed with heavy rods and canes. Shah sustained deep injuries to his head and back.
Though the police swiftly arrested three of the supposed attackers and claimed that they were all under the influence of psychotropic drugs, there is no denying the Janakpur Today group has valid reason to consider its very existence under threat.
Accountability processes for attacks on journalists are often subject to unforeseen political pressures. Illustratively, in September 2010, the local Maoist leadership in the far-western district of Mahendranagar went public with accusations that three journalists in the district had been responsible for the abduction of a professional colleague, Pappu Gurung in 2007. The accusation caused outrage, since the three journalists named, Karna Bohra, Yubaraj Ghimire and Lakshman Tewari are all senior figures and widely respected in the profession. At a town hall meeting organised by the FNJ a few days afterwards, the Maoist leadership seemed to relent marginally. And the journalists were prepared to concede that their early reports – that the Maoist leadership was behind the momentary disappearance of Gurung – may have been in error. The situation was retrieved by the prompt intervention of the FNJ, but underlying tensions remain.

Training lacking

Journalists have key concerns regarding the lack of training and awareness among personnel in the many media establishments that have sprung up across the country. They worry that a failure by poorly trained media workers and others to understand and recognise the human rights of minorities can become a base for serving special interests, leading to renewed conflict. Integral to this concern is the limited availability of high-quality professional training focused on the principles of ethical and inclusive journalism.
The development of a public service journalism culture in Nepal is already evident in reports like that which emerged in one of the country’s largest circulated Englishlanguage
dailies on the day that the Dashain observance began in October 2010. Dashain is a nation-wide cycle of festivals rooted in the Hindu faith but respected equally by all Nepal’s religious communities. The front-page article of state-owned newspaper Rising Nepal on October 9 under the headline, “Festivals fail to bring joy to families of disappeared”, reported that:
Many families who lost their close ones during the armed conflict have not yet received the information regarding the whereabouts of their families till date. Their continuous appeal for providing them with the information regarding the whereabouts of family members has not been addressed yet. Three years have passed since the country has been
declared as democratic federal republic state but still the state had not made public the whereabouts of persons got disappeared (sic) from the state.
The Maoists too have not made public the whereabouts of the persons who were disappeared from their side.
Meanwhile, the struggle for decent wages and working conditions continues among Nepal’s journalists. An officially mandated inquiry found in a report submitted in November 2010 that 37 percent of the country’s journalists are paid below the prescribed minimum wage, while 45 percent of journalists are working without letters of appointment.
Among the media houses surveyed, 48 percent had failed to introduce basic measures such as retirement and welfare funds, medical cover and insurance. The figures revealed that media houses were choosing not to invest in quality journalism or the professional development of staff and in many cases were not compliant with legal obligations to issue letters of appointment.
The recent media boom in Nepal has created favourable conditions for professionals within newspapers and broadcasters catering to the upper income demographic strata, which are generally favoured by the high-value advertisers. However, the situation for the vast majority of journalists, including those in Nepal’s dynamic and expanding radio sector, remainsuncertain. Without a serious investment in quality reporting, the ability of the media to contribute in a constructive fashion to Nepal’s transition to democracy will remain constrained.

Box : A spot of bother with an embassy

India’s Directorate of Revenue Intelligence (DRI), an office under the country’s Finance Ministry, seized a shipment of 1000 tonnes of newsprint imported from Canada and South Korea en route to its destination in Kathmandu on 27 May 2010. The 39 containers routed through the port of Kolkata were found to be in need of “investigation” and were detained for more than a month. The shipment was bound for the Kantipur group of Kathmandu, publisher of the largest circulation dailies in Nepali and English, Kantipur and the Kathmandu Post.
Under trade and transit arrangements to which all landlocked countries are entitled, Nepal can move imports and exports across India without impediment. Sealed containers are allowed to arrive directly at a dry port within Nepali territory, unless there is evidence of misuse of the facility. Although authorities, both in the Indian embassy in Kathmandu and in India’s External Affairs Ministry, denied involvement, it was clear that the Kantipur group had drawn ire for reporting deemed to be adverse to India’s national interests.
It is believed that the Indian embassy may have been annoyed by coverage in the newspapers regarding the attacks on Nepali-speakers in the Assam-Meghalaya region of India and a report about canal works on the Kosi River, shared by the two countries, endangering Nepali villages.
Kantipur’s editorial stance against the Madhav Kumar Nepal government then in office and widely perceived to be backed by India, as well as its coverage of New Delhi’s handling of India’s home-grown Maoist crisis, were reportedly other sources of annoyance. When backroom negotiations did not work, Kantipur proceeded to make the newsprint seizure front page news in June, prompting statements of concern from the IFJ and other press freedom organisations.
The Indian Embassy issued a belligerent note in response, saying that motives were being imputed to a routine customs examination and that “the distorted manner in which the issue has been publicised is hardly helpful in bringing about an early resolution to the customs investigations”. But it was precisely this publicity and pressure that led to the consignment of newsprint being released on 27 June.
That should have been the end of the story. However on 27 August the Indian embassy in Kathmandu issued a press release speaking of “certain print and television media” that had been reporting “against products manufactured by Indian Joint Ventures in Nepal”.
The statement went on to impute an extortionist intention to these media organisations. Certain organisations, the statement said, had “informed the embassy that they have been approached by such media houses for release of advertisements and are being threatened with negative publicity if those requests are not met”.
A storm of protest followed, with journalists’ unions, media organisations and the Nepal Press Council all denouncing the Indian embassy for breaching diplomatic propriety and acting in gross disrespect of the freedom and autonomy of the Nepali media. The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) termed the embassy statement as “unfit and improper” and vowed to undertake a “detailed study” of the entire incident. Also joining issue with the Indian mission were the Television Broadcasters’ Nepal, the Nepal Media Society, the Broadcasting Association of Nepal and the Association of Community Radio Broadcasters.
The Indian mission responded by pointing out that the organisations would carry more credibility if they were also attentive to the unethical practices that in its estimation, flourished within the media.
The IFJ with the support of SAMSN partners in India criticised the Indian Government’s decision to hold up the newsprint imported by the Kantipur group. In the context of the later upsurge in friction, SAMSN partners urged that all parties submit the entire range of issues to the adjudication of the Nepal Press Council. This course of action, SAMSN held, would help build institutional capacity in the Nepali media and establish precedents that could guide future decisions on matters of ethical practice and professional conduct.

(2011 May 3,
By : International Federation of Journalists; IFJ
To read full report click here)