Concern over increasing risks faced by journalists

In the district of Dhading, 120 km southwest of the capital Kathmandu, working life is not easy for journalist Sitaram Adhikary, who often finds himself caught between the state and the Maoists who have been waging a violent rebellion for the past 10 years.

Surrounded by barbed wire and security check posts, the fortified urban centre of Dhading is considered a high-alert security zone due to the large presence of the heavily armed Maoist militia in the nearby villages.

“This is my passion and I will continue working as a journalist no matter what the hardship,” said Adhikary, who barely makes US $75 a month from his reporting job at a national daily newspaper.

Adhikary is often literally caught in the violent clashes between the rebel militants and Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) soldiers. He has to be extra cautious especially while reporting the abuses at their hands against local civilians, whose vulnerability is increasing every day due to the number of military clashes in populated areas.

“The mental torture is a daily routine for the journalists,” explained Adhikary, who is often interrogated by local administration and security officials to reveal the sources of his information on the whereabouts of the rebels and their activities.

At the same time, the rebels are putting the lives of journalists at risk, with neither side in the conflict allowing independent reporting.

The situation has now drawn criticism from international journalists who have expressed serious concerns over the increasing risks that Nepalese reporters are experiencing on a day-to-day basis.

An international mission to Nepal on 20 March by 12 renowned global media organisations noted a number of cases of local journalists being harassed, intimidated, illegally detained, tortured and issues restrictive directives by the state.

“Of particular concern is the increasing involvement of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) and armed police forces in press freedom and freedom of expression violations, as well as interference in the media sphere,” the mission said in a statement on 25 March.

But despite this concern, also reiterated by local and international human rights groups, abuses against the reporters continue, according to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ).

The FNJ, which comprises of more than 5,000 Nepalese journalists and is actively engaged in fighting for press freedom, has come under immense pressure. It has been subject to threats by the state, especially since 1 February, 2005 when King Gyanendra assumed direct rule of the country. The king sacked the democratic government and introduced several royal media ordinances to control the country’s vibrant independent press.

“The cases of injuries and arrests of journalists are increasing every day and state intimidation against journalists is beyond control,” said FNJ President Bishnu Nisturi, who has lost count of how many times he has been arrested and detained by both the army and the police.

He further explained that journalists’ physical security and safety are under threat from both the state and rebels.

Journalists came under threat again during the mass democratic rallies organised by the seven main opposition parties last week. Many were arrested, detained and physically manhandled for reporting on police brutality against the peaceful demonstrators. Since 5 April, around 102 were arrested in less than a week, according to the FNJ.

During the three days of curfew imposed by the state on Saturday,the Ministry of Communications refused to give curfew passes to journalists from several leading newspapers, consequently making them victims of police intimidation and arrests.

On Sunday, journalist Hari Gyawali was severely injured and hospitalised when he was battered by a group of armed police in Butwal city, 300 km west of Kathmandu, for failing to carry a curfew pass.

“We were shocked at the violence of the security forces whose beating fractured his arm,” said local journalist Jai Bahadur Pun, who helped Gyawali to get to hospital.

On top of this, concern is growing about overnight detention of journalists in police stations, which remain prime targets for the Maoists. On Sunday, the rebels attacked Butwal’s police station, where 18 journalists had been detained. The security forces fled the station leaving the journalists without any protection. Fortunately, none of them were injured but the situation left them traumatised.

“The journalists were shocked to hear some of the army soldiers saying that [they] could be human shields against the attack and that [their] lives meant nothing to them,” explained Pun, infuriated at the cruel attitude of the soldiers. He also criticised the Maoist rebels for being indifferent to the safety of the journalists, about whose detention the rebels were fully aware.

“Both sides have been literally terrorising the journalists,” said Pun.