Freedom of the Press
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Conditions for the Nepali media, which had already been poor as a result of the escalation of the Maoist insurgency in 2001, deteriorated sharply after a "palace coup" on February 1, 2005 in which King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev dismissed the government, assumed executive powers, and imposed a state of emergency. In the crackdown that followed, hundreds of political leaders and activists were arrested and detained, while rights to freedom of expression, movement, and assembly were severely curtailed. The ability of journalists, human rights defenders, and other civil society actors to work effectively was particularly compromised.
The 1990 constitution provides for freedom of expression and specifically prohibits censorship and the closure of media outlets. However, both the constitution and the Press and Publications Act allow for restrictions on speech and writing that could undermine the monarchy, national security, public order, or interethnic or intercaste relations, and antiterrorism legislation permits authorities to detain for renewable six-month periods individuals suspected of supporting the Maoists. Journalist Maheshwar Pahari, who had been arrested in January 2004 under this legislation, died in custody in October 2005 after authorities refused to provide him with the necessary medical treatment for tuberculosis.
As part of the state of emergency, censorship was imposed (including the posting of army personnel in media premises and prepublication vetting of news articles), private radio stations were banned outright from broadcasting any news, and other media outlets were banned from reporting critically on government activities or the insurgency. In addition, a number of prominent editors were arrested and detained during the crackdown. According to the 2005 report by the Kathmandu-based Center for Human Rights and Democratic Studies (CEHURDES), dozens of journalists were arrested, detained, and subjected to threats or interrogation in the months following, while media outlets suffered raids and other extralegal action. A restrictive press ordinance announced in October gave the government the power to revoke journalists' press accreditation and to impose high fines for publishing banned items; permanently barred private radio stations from broadcasting news; criminalized criticism of the royal family; and restricted media cross-ownership. In November, the Supreme Court refused to block the media ordinance despite the petitions of a number of local groups asking that it be suspended.
Although self-censorship is a growing concern, journalists and local press freedom organizations and workers groups have been at the forefront of resisting the king's assault on freedom of expression and other democratic rights more generally. These groups organized a number of demonstrations demanding the restitution of their rights in addition to pressing the Supreme Court to uphold media freedom in several legal challenges to official ordinances and threats against journalists and specific media outlets such as Kantipur FM.
Apart from the additional restrictions imposed during and after the crackdown, the ability of the Nepali press to operate freely, particularly in rural areas, remains seriously constrained by both government forces and the Maoists. Journalists suspected of pro-Maoist leanings or who produce material critical of the government are regularly arrested and detained by police and security forces, and a number have reportedly been subjected to harassment, torture, and occasionally subjected to death. Reporters trying to cover events such as antigovernment demonstrations have also been victims of beatings or other harassment by the police. Media professionals are also under constant pressure from the Maoists; reporters are regularly abducted and threatened and often expelled from rebel-held areas. In November 2004, the Maoists imposed a reporting ban in five western districts and put into place provisions that required journalists to obtain permission from local Maoist leaders before reporting from the area. Suspected Maoists shot Khagendra Shrestha in March; the editor of the Dharan Today daily died of his injuries two weeks later.
The government owns several of the major English-language and vernacular dailies; these news outlets generally provide pro-government coverage. A range of private publications, some of which have traditionally covered sensitive issues such as the role of the monarchy, human rights violations, the insurgency, and corruption, continue to operate, but their ability to provide critical reports has been severely compromised by the range of factors noted earlier. The government owns both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage is supportive of official policies, and NTV, Nepal's main television station. Private radio stations, which flourished prior to the coup, have come under severe strain, as has the privately owned print press. Although the internet is generally unrestricted, after the February coup access to both the internet and other forms of communication (including telephone lines) were shut down across Nepal, and access to satellite television and foreign broadcasts was restricted or censored-although some (but not all) Indian stations were allowed to resume broadcasting in June. Under government instructions, privately run internet service providers have blocked access to the Maoists' website since February 2004. In an already difficult economic environment, the viability of media outlets was threatened by the March decision to cut official advertising from all private media outlets. Meanwhile, as a result of the blanket censorship and news bans, more than 2,000 journalists were estimated to have lost their jobs during the year, thus adding to workers' hardship. In contrast, pro-palace journalists have been rewarded by government handouts.