Last February Nepalese King Gyanendra, declaring a state of emergency, seized power from parliament, suspended all press freedoms and imposed government censorship on all national media outlets. Nepalese radio stations could no longer broadcast news, and national newspaper editors had military visitors reading through copy. But in the months that followed, Nepal’s journalists began to fight back. Recently, CJR’s Julia Heming sat down with Kunda Dixit, the founding editor of the English-language weekly Nepali Times and co-publisher of Himal Southasian Magazine, to find out how Nepalese journalists have managed to break out of the silence.
Julia Heming: What is the political situation in Nepal right now, and how is it affecting the national media?
Kunda Dixit: The king took over power on February 1. Six months later the political parties’ activities are still curbed. Although the emergency has been lifted, there is still a lot of pressure on citizen’s rights and on press freedom. There is still a lot of indirect pressure on the media not to write anything critical of the king or in support of restoration of democracy. And this intimidation comes in the form of travel restrictions, a ban on government advertising, phone calls, that sort of thing. And senior editors also being detained briefly or being summoned by the police to explain why they wrote such and such a thing.
JH: What type of information can’t be printed? Is there a list of specific terms?
KD: There is a regulation, it’s not a law. It’s a regulation that came into effect February 7, which lays out very, very strict punishment for anything that is critical of the king’s moves, anything that would be detrimental for the morale of the security forces who are fighting an insurgency, anything that’s against national interest, so on and so forth. It’s a very broad definition, so anything can be construed to be critical, but the punishment is very strict.
So, for a while, you saw the effects of this on the media. Media were being careful, they’re not sticking their necks out. But, you know, six months down the line, what you see now is a lot of defiance against it, despite the regulation. So now there’s also a movement building up within the media to resist the government’s efforts to turn these regulations into a law through a royal ordinance. We don’t have parliament, so it has to be by decree. The decree has gone to the palace for approval. This is why the media in Nepal — and also the legal fraternity — are being very active in trying to resist this.
JH: Would you explain a little bit more about how the media is able to resist the censors?
KD: For the first two weeks there were actual soldiers in the news room with guns, especially in radio stations, TV stations, Internet service providers and the daily newspapers. In the weekly papers, like ours, they didn’t come in uniforms and they didn’t have guns. But they sat there at the news desk and they read through everything, and then they said, you know, “This can’t go, this has to be taken out.” It could be pictures, cartoons, even letters to the editor.
So in the first week we left white holes where they took stuff out, and the week after that they told us that we can’t leave white holes, so we had to use all kinds of imaginative things to fill that space up. So we started writing absurd editorials, or metaphorical stuff, or very indirect satire, and things like that. And especially with the ban on news on radio, the radio stations had been extremely creative in resisting by having simulated radio studios on the street corners where they broadcast news to the street and people stop by to listen. They have been openly defying the ban on news on radio by reading news about the king, you know — the king’s activities, where he went. So you see, now, actually it’s very strange, but fighting for democracy and press freedom seems to be a lot of fun. (Laughs)
JH: Why do you think that the radio stations are more censored than the print media?
Because they go to the public, because of the wide access and the affordability of the radio in a country that’s largely illiterate. Our literacy rate is only 46 percent, so the value and importance of radio is, I think, realized by the regime. They know that through radio a lot of people can be empowered, be alerted and that people could demand their rights. So they ban news on radio, and there’s no such ban on television, and … well, at the moment, newspapers are still coming out, so why radio? I think they’re just scared of the public.