The military remained in the media offices for days. The officers were doing something that had never been a component of their training – editing the news. Anything critical of the coup could not make it to the printing press. With guns in their holsters, they carefully lifted paragraphs, lines and words off the laid out page.
As one soldier, sent to seal off an FM station in Far Western Nepal, said condescendingly: ‘Don’t broadcast any news bulletins until further orders come from above. It is going to be something like Pakistan.’
Since then, the horizon for Nepalese media has grown much darker. And the young soldier has been proved wrong – things have gone much further off course than happened in Pakistan following the bloodless coup staged by General Pervez Musharraf.
What followed February 1 were days from hell, constituting the darkest episode in the 100-year history of journalism in the Himalayan kingdom. Hundreds of journalists were arrested nation-wide, while many with a leftist bent went underground.
Government forces picked up the then secretary general of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) Bishnu Nisthuri at 10:30 at night. The soldiers blindfolded him before pushing him ‘politely’ into a vehicle which meandered through Kathmandu’s deserted roads for four hours. Nisthuri would later discover that the four-hour long journey had actually landed him at a police station hardly a kilometer from his residence beside the Singh Durbar, the Nepalese counterpart of the White House.
He was released after 22 days in detention following mounting international pressure by a score of media organizations, including the International Federation of Journalists and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. The then FNJ president Taranath Dahal kept himself a free man only by taking refuge at the UN compound in Kathmandu.
The situation was worse in the countryside, where printing presses were locked up and local newspapers were banned, many never to reappear. Unlike in the capital city where newspapers were allowed to continue under the ghostly shadows of the ‘military editors’, the local administrations banned newspaper printing in remote districts. In some cases, editors and publishers were summoned by the local administration or military officers and threatened not to raise their voices against the royal take over.
At the same time, FM stations, the only bridge between the national mainstream and the illiterate millions, were prevented from broadcasting news bulletins. These were promptly replaced by never-ending musical programs. For millions of FM listeners in the hilly regions of Nepal, reading national newspapers and magazines is practically impossible, as it takes days before they can get hold of the publications from Kathmandu.
From February 1 to February 3, the country was completely incommunicado. The telephone service was blocked and foreign television channels went blank. Newspapers from abroad piled up at the airport warehouse.
When the FNJ’s Bishnu Nisthuri went to consult his colleagues at Kantipur, the country’s biggest publications house, he found the national daily’s office swarming with RNA members in war fatigues. Nisthuri, who was elected president of the FNJ by the federation’s national convention four months after the coup, remembers it vividly. "The soldiers were posted at the media houses even before the royal proclamation happened," he said.
Curiously, unlike in the media houses, there was no military presence in the offices of the political parties. Kathmandu’s analysts read it as an indication that the government regards the media, rather than the political parties, as its most dangerous enemy. No wonder the Nepalese media houses have been constant targets of the despotic system.
Was King Gyanendra’s take-over that day an anti-media step rather than an anti-democracy step? The behavior of the state in the immediate aftermath of the coup and the developments so far suggest that the government’s one and only aim is to silence the voice of the independent media. No stone has been left unturned to achieve that goal. However, with every attempt to dismantle the independent media, the government has achieved nothing but to distance itself further from the international community.
Nepal’s situation has been growing worse since 1996, when Maoist rebels declared a ‘people’s war’ against the government. The media was thrown into crisis in 2001 when the Nepali Congress government led by Sher Bahadur Deuba (now put behind the bars by an anti-corruption body formed by the king) declared the first state of emergency in Nepal’s history. Ever since, journalists have been threatened, harassed, tortured, displaced, forcibly disappeared and killed in cold blood. Both the state and the Maoists have kept up their attacks. As a result, 18 media persons have lost their lives for practicing the profession of journalism.
The disbanding of the parliament in 2001, the extension of the state of emergency by decree and the introduction of the Terrorist and Destructive Activities (Control and Punishment) Ordinance – all these disturbing developments rendered the exercise of the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression virtually impossible. In the years that followed, Nepal went on to be rated among the world’s most repressive regimes. Rights organizations across the world said Nepal was a humanitarian catastrophe in the making.
The FNJ’s international partners condemned the government’s failure to respect the right to information. The international community in Kathmandu repeatedly stressed the government’s obligations to stand by international agreements. However, outweighed by Afghanistan and Iraq, the nightmare of Nepalese colleagues has continued to slip under the radar of the international press.
Even today, big newspapers in the west such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Herald Tribune and The Daily Telegraph accord little space to Nepal. Of course the question of proximity always matters in journalism, but it is only now that the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Nepal is attracting the attention of the western media. This is clear from the increasing number of foreign journalists seeking press accreditation from the Ministry of Information and Communications.
It cost our democracy to rouse them out of their oblivion!
Take your eyes off the Tora Bora caves and the ‘spiderhole’ near River Tigris. It’s time to cast the cameras on the foothills of the Himalayas!
R.B. Khatry is the Executive Director of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists and a journalist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the crisis in Nepal and what you can do to help, go here