An End to War, But Not to Danger

Reporting on reform holds peril in Nepal

This story has been updated since initial publication.

The political agenda in Nepal this spring is jam-packed. By May 28, the country is supposed to finish drafting a new constitution, finalize redrawn state boundaries, and unify two armies that were at war with each other for over a decade.

All that means it’s a busy season for journalists, too. Even though few expect the nation’s leaders will make the May deadline, the pressure is on—and so are the rallies, protests, and strikes, called by a range of groups desperate to get their messages heard by politicians. But as the country’s vibrant media seek to curate this debate over the future of the Himalayan state, journalists increasingly find themselves targets.

That’s a setback in a country with strong journalism and a proud record of defying official repression. The pro-democracy movement that introduced parliamentary democracy in 1990 led to an explosion of new media outlets, and another flurry accompanied the relative political stability that followed the end of a decade-long civil war in 2006. New newspapers appeared in previously isolated rural communities, and radio and television stations also expanded. The abolition of Nepal’s monarchy in 2007 marked the end of overt state censorship, and in its wake new laws were adopted that strengthened press freedom.

But censorship has returned, in a new guise. Now, rather than an official censor, it’s criminal gangs and rival political groups that are applying the pressure.

“There has been a criminalization of politics and politicization of crime,” said Kunda Dixit, editor of the Kathmandu-based English language weekly newspaper the Nepali Times. “So reporters don’t know where the threats are coming from when they do an exposé on corruption or crime, or sometimes when they don’t file a speech by some local party boss.”

According to some Nepali journalists, the result is that journalists face a constant professional dilemma: censor themselves and stay safe, or report a vital but sensitive story and risk attack.

“Censorship can work in subtle ways,” said Deepak Adhikari, a reporter with Kantipur Daily, the country’s most popular newspaper. “The ministers or the top party leaders themselves ask editors not to cover so-and-so event or not to criticize the government too much.” The result, Adhikari said, is that “many Nepali journalists practice self-censorship to avoid being targeted.”

Nepal’s civil war claimed 13,000 lives and left a legacy of disappearances and human rights abuses committed by both the Maoist People’s Liberation Army and state forces, then known as the Royal Nepalese Army. Many journalists covered the war courageously, but nine reporters were killed during the conflict. A culture of impunity meant that the disappearances and murders of journalists were often not investigated or prosecuted.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently rated Nepal seventh in its impunity index, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world for media. The shift from monarchy to a coalition-led government has “brought no redress in media attacks,” the group noted.

Among post-civil war examples of the impunity problem was the 2007 murder of Nepal FM correspondent Birendra Shah. Maoists accused of carrying out that killing have never been prosecuted. The disappearance of freelancer Prakash Singh Thakuri the same year also remains unsolved; he was abducted by members of the Maoist Young Communist League, after the end of the war, and is still missing three years later.

In other cases, such as the very public murders of J.P. Joshi, editor of Nepali language daily Janadisha, and local radio reporter Uma Singh, who was murdered last year by fifteen knife-wielding men in her home, police claim the killings were the result of family disputes. But both journalists had written stories critical of local government, and Singh had also written about controversial Maoist land seizures in Nepal’s Terai plains, near the border with India. Many journalists believe their work led to their deaths.

Despite the increase in threats, many publications continue to report on the current volatile politics. For Nepali journalists, said Adhikari, defying censors of any kind is a proud tradition. “The media is largely credited for supporting the pro-democracy movement of April 2006 that ended the king’s autocratic rule and ended the civil war,” he said. “Nepalese have become more vocal about the issues that affect their lives and assertive about media’s power.”

But the political instability that makes Nepali journalism so vital to its audiences also undercuts private media outlets in other ways.

“It is a vicious cycle,” said Dixit. “Media can only be truly independent if it is financially viable. To be financially viable there have to be ads, for ads there has to be at least eight percent economic growth. For economic growth, you need investment. Which needs political stability.”

Update, 3/6: The third paragraph of this story has been revised. In its original form, it did not note the initial proliferation of media in Nepal that followed the pro-democracy movement in 1990.

For a slideshow that explores how photojournalism supported efforts to shift the political dialogue toward peace in Nepal, click here.

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Yepoka Yeebo is a student at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.