Nepal: Killing the News

Censorship and jailing of journalists under the state of emergency

by Li Onesto

Revolutionary Worker #1160, July 28, 2002, posted at

I had been traveling with a people's army platoon for over two weeks through the jagged countryside of Rolpa--deep in the guerrilla zones where Maoist base areas were being established. For security reasons, we had to keep moving. So most of the time, we stayed in a village for only one night and left early in the morning. But in this village, we had the day to rest, wash our clothes, and take a bath.

It was an easy day--a brief respite from the intense conditions and pace of our journey. And in the afternoon, as the sun dried our clothes, we all had a chance to sit around and relax.

Police in the guerrilla zones didn't allow revolutionary newspapers into the area. You could be arrested, possibly shot, for bringing any kind of Maoist literature into Rolpa. But someone had smuggled in an issue of Janadesh-- one of the Maoist newspapers printed in Kathmandu. When they pulled it out of their pocket, a cheer went up in the room. The issue was a couple of weeks old, but the guerrillas eagerly passed it around, pouring over every article, reading some parts aloud. Battle news from around the country and revolutionary analysis and commentary provided a lifeline for these rebels. And all afternoon, the already tattered newspaper, limp from being folded and refolded so many times, traveled around the room--and was then carefully put away so it could travel to another village.

This is a scene from 1999 when I went to Nepal as a revolutionary journalist to cover the popular Maoist People's War. I thought of this when I heard about the police shutting down Janadesh at the end of last year.

On November 26, 2001, police in Kathmandu raided the offices of three publications that had openly supported the Maoist People's War: Janadesh , Janadisha , and Dishabodh . Police arrested nine staff members, including seven journalists, and confiscated equipment and papers.

The arrests took place only hours before the government declared a state of emergency and enacted the Terrorist and Destructive Activities (Control and Punishment) ordinance, which named the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) a "terrorist organization" and therefore illegal. The government also announced that any organizations or individuals supporting the CPN(M) and its activities would be considered terrorists. Under the new regulations, "terrorism" would carry a life sentence.

The journalists arrested in the raid were held in solitary confinement for 26 days before their families were finally able to visit them.

Crackdown on the Press

The state of emergency gave security forces new powers to detain people, and the November 26 raid on Janadesh was the start of a new intense campaign by the government to control and crack down on the press. At the same time, the Royal Nepalese Army launched a vicious "search and destroy" campaign in the countryside--that is going on to this day--killing hundreds of people suspected of being Maoist "sympathizers" or guerrillas.

In the weeks after the state of emergency began, many more Maoist journalists were arrested. But the target of the government's assault on the press quickly widened to include all kinds of newspapers, and TV and radio stations. Many mainstream editors and writers were picked up and interrogated--not because they were suspected of being Maoists, but simply because they had tried to run news stories about the People's War.

All kinds of civil rights had been suspended. Battles were going on in the countryside involving hundreds, sometimes thousands of people. Peasants in the countryside were being killed by government forces. For the first time, government soldiers were being killed by guerrillas. This was the biggest news in the country. Yet the government was determined to prevent reporters from covering what was going on. Journalists were banned from battle areas, the army told the media they had to get permission before publishing any news about military affairs and that the only news of battles allowed would be those news reports issued by the government.

Journalists were picked up because they had run photos of or quoted Maoist leaders. At least one editor reported he had been ordered to "stop publishing any statements from the Maoists." Some editors were targeted because their newspapers had been critical of the state of emergency or government corruption.

On November 28, authorities seized all copies of the Kathmandu Post--the largest English- language daily in Nepal--after the newspaper ran a photo of several Maoist leaders. Government officials warned the paper's editors not to publish articles or photos that "glorify" the Maoist movement. The same day, the Ministry of Information and Communication issued a statement listing several topics not allowed , including reports that "create hatred and disrespect against His Majesty the King and the Royal Family"; "Anything that is likely to create hatred against [the] Royal Nepal Army, police and civil servants and lower their morale and dignity"; "News that support[s] Maoist terrorist[s] including individual[s] or groups"; and "Any matters that aim at overthrowing elected government." The statement also encouraged the media to publish official news and reports "regarding bravery and achievements of [the] Royal Nepal Army, police and civil servants."

In the first six months of emergency rule, more than 100 journalists and other media workers were detained and 30 to 40 are still in custody. Many of these people have been members of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), the mainstream organization of journalists in Nepal.

All this--the state of emergency, the crackdown on the press, and the government's whole war on the People's War-- could not be carried out without military, political, and economic support from India and the major imperialist powers. India has stepped up its supply of arms to the Royal Nepalese Army. And the United States, Britain, Russia, and Germany have all pledged to help the Nepalese government fight the Maoists as part of the worldwide "war on terrorism." And Nepal's King Gyanendra recently went to China where he was promised help in fighting the People's War.

Preventive Detention

This is not the first time the Nepalese government has cracked down on the press. After the June 2001 palace massacre of the King and several family members of the royal family (by the King's son), police arrested the editor and two directors of the mainstream daily newspaper and publishing house, Kantipur. All three were charged with treason for printing an article by top Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai that called on Nepalese citizens to reject the newly crowned King Gyanendra as a "puppet of Indian expansionist forces." The government was later forced to drop the case.

And since the start of the People's War in 1996, there have been many attacks on revolutionary journalists. During my 1999 trip to Nepal I interviewed Maoist writers who talked about government repression of the press. People told me that of the 300 different newspapers in Nepal, most of them were carrying news about the People's War. But the government was clamping down--not only on the revolutionary press, but on all kinds of other papers that had printed articles about the Maoists.

One writer told me about the raids on Maoist newspapers: "Police attacked the revolutionary newspaper Janadesh--14 people were arrested the second week of January, including senior journalists and advisors. Police confiscated the computers, cameras, office equipment illegally. Ten were released after one week and four were held in jail for over a month and charged with treason. The court later had to dismiss these charges for lack of evidence but none of the materials/equipment have been returned. Fifteen days ago Jwala was raided by the police and three people were arrested. Then two days later two from Janabahan were arrested -- the editor and the executive editor. Five are still in jail. At Jwala the police confiscated computers. One photo journalist (freelance) has also been arrested."

The young comrade also talked about other ways the government was trying to stop people from getting revolutionary newspapers. He said, "In January, six from a printing place were arrested, one was the owner, the others were pressmen and workers. They were later released and will now no longer print Janadesh --the police threatened them and they agreed to stop. The revolutionary papers are prohibited in the main zones where the People's War is being waged and readers and sellers are arrested. But ways are being found to get the papers distributed again in these areas. Legally, the government cannot ban the paper but it is doing this in other ways, with arrests, raids, etc. aimed at stopping the publications altogether."

I also interviewed some lawyers in Kathmandu who were involved with human rights issues. One lawyer told me, "Preventive detention came into law in 1991 but only started to be used two years ago [1997]. According to this, they can keep people in custody for three months, but this can be extended another three months by the cabinet ministry and the person can be detained even longer. They also let people out after some time and then immediately arrest them again. People are supposed to have the right of habeas corpus but there is a lot of false evidence and frame-ups."

Under the new state of emergency, preventive detention has allowed the government to jail people for months without charging them with anything. Sometimes their families are not given any information about their whereabouts. For example, in March, the police arrested Gopal Budhathoki, editor of the weekly Sanghu , and advisor of the Kathmandu Federation of Nepalese Journalists district committee. Sanghu had frequently reported on the arbitrary killings of civilians by the army and government corruption. For four days the government denied knowing anything about Budhathoki. But after protest from human rights groups and the press, the Prime Minister admitted the army had detained him for publishing reports which "encouraged and raised the morale of the Maoists" and "fabricating" articles about the security forces for the sole purpose of "spreading rumors and demoralizing the army."

Gopal Budhathoki had published articles about some financial irregularities related to helicopter purchases made by the Nepalese Army. The Prime Minister stated that "publishing information of this kind is equivalent to directly collaborating with the terrorists."

Tortured for Writing

"The troops do as they please. They completely violate the laws by arresting, questioning, torturing and detaining suspects, especially journalists."

Subodh Raj Pyakurel, General Secretary of the Nepalese human rights organization INSEC

I was in Nepal when Krishna Sen, editor of the Maoist newspaper Janadesh, was arrested after he published an interview with top CPN (Maoist) leader Babarum Bhattarai. He was jailed for 22 months under provisions of the "Public Security Act" which sanctions preventive detention for those considered a "threat to domestic security and tranquility." He was arrested again under the state of emergency in May and it has now been reported that he was tortured to death while in custody. Revolutionaries have been greatly saddened and outraged by the news, and journalists and human rights activists around the world are protesting and demanding the government reveal the full details of what happened to Krishna Sen (see article "International Outrage at the Murder of Krishna Sen").

According to human rights activists and relatives of those imprisoned, most of the journalists accused of being sympathetic to the Maoists have been tortured. One woman said, "My husband was tortured during the first two or three days of his confinement in the army barracks. His hands and feet were bound and he was given electric shocks."

The Kathmandu human rights group INSEC interviewed individuals tortured by the police or the military and says prisoners are forced to keep their heads down all day long and are being interrogated once a day. They are forced to undress and then beaten with an iron bar. Those who survive and are released are told they will be killed if they talk about what happened to them in prison.

A few days after the state of emergency was declared, Shankar Khanal, who worked with the state- owned radio station Radio Nepal and the Space Time daily, was arrested along with Ganga Bista, a correspondent with the Nepalese state-owned television and local newspaper Chautari Times . The two young journalists were interrogated and tortured. INSEC reported that "The police forced them to take off their clothes--then struck them and splashed them, first with hot water, then with cold water. And they did this several times a day." The two men had covered many Maoist demonstrations in the past and the torture was aimed at getting them to reveal the names of their "Maoist contacts." After protests from human rights organizations, Shankar Khanal was released in March. But Ganga Bista remains in custody.

When I was in Nepal, I interviewed some lawyers in the Supreme Court Bar Association who talked about the torture of political prisoners. One of them said, "Our Constitution prohibits the death penalty but in practice people are being killed mercilessly and no investigation is done into such murders. The law and Constitution provides that inquiries should take place in such cases, but the government doesn't commission any inquiry into such events. In this manner hundreds of Nepali citizens have been massacred by the administration. And hundreds of men and women have been arrested and put into jail and they are charged with fake cases... These days, the government prefers to just kill people. There is inhuman torture in jail. The Constitution stipulates that no one should be tortured and should be presented before court within 24 hours of arrest, habeas corpus--but all this is violated."

Another lawyer told me, "There is physical torture, especially rape, electric shock, and beating the feet with an iron pipe. There are also new forms of torture like forcing people to stand still, blindfolded. They take people in a car and interrogate them in another area far away. There is the use of an iron pipe on the body, hanging by the feet upside down, putting hot water on people, etc. Some people are mentally disturbed after being tortured in custody. The police also give disinformation, saying that someone in custody has denounced his party or surrendered. They also spread lies against Maoists, accusing some of sexual affairs, financial corruption, etc."

Today, lawyers like those I interviewed, who defend political prisoners and are working to expose the government, have themselves been targeted by the government for arrest. In March, Ramnath Mainali, a lawyer who was working on behalf of Janadesh , was arrested by a dozen plainclothes members of the security force. Mainali had defended, among others, Janadesh editors Govinda Acharya and Krishna Sen.

Relatives of political prisoners have also been harassed, even arrested, for demanding their legal rights. Govinda Acharya's wife, Sabitree Acharya, was arrested by the Army after she filed a writ of habeas corpus, trying to get her husband released. Sabitree has now become one of those who have "disappeared."

Widespread Protest

Journalist, legal and human rights organizations in Nepal and internationally have been protesting the blatant censorship of the news in Nepal and the arrest, torture and murder of journalists.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) from New York, and the Paris-based Reporters Sans FrontiŠres (Reporters without Borders) sent fact-finding teams to Nepal and have both issued extensive reports, exposing the government's campaign of repression against the press. Both groups have been organizing protests and finding different ways to let people know about what is happening to journalists in Nepal.

The team from Reporters Sans FrontiŠres (RSF) met with journalists, managing editors, human rights activists, and lawyers and families of imprisoned journalists. One Kathmandu journalist told RSF, "The litany of deaths announced daily in the press and the presence of military patrols in the streets of Kathmandu have created an atmosphere of war that we have never experienced before."

At least 30 journalists and other media people are currently being held for alleged acts of terrorism under the government's "Terrorist and Disruptive Activities Ordinance (TADO). None of them has been sentenced, and their families have been prevented from initiating any habeas corpus procedures.

The CPJ delegation, including Pulitzer Prize winner Josh Friedman, met with many of the journalists who have been abducted by security forces and held incommunicado. The group discovered that the majority of arrests were carried out illegally and that many of those arrested had been abused. Some journalists said they had been disappointed that the international community did not challenge the government's sweeping attacks on the press back in November.

Journalists also told CPJ members that it has been virtually impossible to get accurate information about the government's military offensive against the Maoists - and that casualty figures provided by the Defense Ministry were mostly unreliable.


When I traveled into the guerrilla zones in Nepal, in every village, peasants told me how important it was for journalists to tell their story--to let the world know about the brutal campaigns being waged by the government and their struggle for liberation.

In the three years since I went to Nepal, the People's War has grown and intensified tremendously. In the countryside, there are fierce battles between the Royal Nepalese Army and the People's Liberation Army--involving, at times, several hundred, even thousands, of peasants. And despite the government's attempts to censor, control and distort the news, it is clear that the People's War is continuing to gain support, build base areas, and launch successful military attacks.

The government's interrogation, incarceration, torture and murder of journalists is a desperate attempt to cover up the truth and disseminate all kinds of disinformation. The people cannot let them get away with this. The journalists unjustly jailed must be freed. The press must be allowed to tell the truth. And revolutionary journalists and others trying to accurately report on the People's War in Nepal must be defended.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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