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SILENCE IN NEPAL

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KATMANDU, Feb 1 2005 (IPS) - Every time we in Nepal think things can\’t get any worse, they do, writes Kunda Dixit, editor of the weekly Nepali Times. Last week, King Gyanendra sacked his prime minister, declared a state of emergency, and suspended civil liberties. Nepal\’s 15-year experiment with democracy now seems over. With complete press censorship, one of the last remaining freedoms from the 1990 People\’s Movement is gone. King Gyanendra\’s move has been welcomed by many Nepalis disenchanted by the instability caused by fractious and corrupt parliamentary leaders and by an insurgency which has cost 12,000 lives in nine years. If this is what the king had to do to restore peace, they say, so be it. In the long run, however, the answer to Maoist totalitarianism is greater and more inclusive democracy, a vibrant free press, and civil liberties. Curtailing freedom polarises society between two radicalisms and wipes out the middle ground. And even as a strategy against the Maoists it could be counterproductive.

Every time we in Nepal think things can’t get any worse, they do.

As the Maoist insurgency intensified in 2001 and casualties soared, almost the entire royal family, including King Birendra, was massacred. The next year, parliament was dissolved and local elected bodies disbanded. As political parties bickered, King Gyanendra, who succeeded his brother, sacked the prime minister in 2002 and ruled through nominated ministers.

Last week, King Gyanendra sacked his prime minister again, declared a state of emergency, and suspended civil liberties. Nepal’s 15-year experiment with democracy now seems over, at least for the present. With complete press censorship, one of the last remaining freedoms from the 1990 People’s Movement is gone. Since February 1, Nepal’s press, until then one of the freest in the world, has been subjected to absolute censorship. Nothing critical of the king’s move, in letter or spirit, is allowed to be printed or broadcast, and action will be taken against anyone who violates this ban.

Armed soldiers sat inside newsrooms this week, vetting the galleys before they went to press. Sometimes, they changed headlines that they thought were critical of the royal move. Nepal’s vibrant FM radio stations, which were models for decentralised public service broadcasting and community radio, have been prohibited from broadcasting on current affairs; some FM stations have been closed and locked. The BBC’s Nepali service, which used to be broadcast over a network of twelve FM stations throughout the country, has been stopped. All Indian news channels have been dropped from cable networks. On Saturday, two senior journalists were detained for issuing statements critical of the crackdown.

Newspapers and magazines are blandly reproducing official pronouncements and reports from the state-run news agency. Some have taken the risk of resorting to metaphors and allegory while others poke fun at the whole situation by writing editorials on ballet dancing or bee-keeping. At least one newspaper came out with its news pages completely blank.

Most of the younger journalists, especially those in radio, have been shocked by the censorship. The freedoms that they were so used to, and maybe even took for granted, have now been snatched away. But for older journalists like me, there is a strong sense of déjà vu: the controls hark back to the times of the partyless absolute monarchy that existed before 1990 when self-censorship was the order of the day. Irrational news decisions, sycophancy, and propaganda passed as journalism. Even in those days, editors, reporters, and columnists played a cat and mouse game with the authorities, resorting to satire, humour, or metaphor.

But punishment could be harsh. Many journalists spent time behind bars, and there was a price to be paid even when accidental typos appeared in the morning newspapers — like the time a headline about a royal birthday read “suspicious” instead of “auspicious”.

Old jokes from the pre-1990 days have come back, like this one: a man was walking down a Kathmandu street shouting, “Down with dictatorship in Pakistan.” A policeman grabbed him and took him in. At the police station, he asked the protester: “Why are you denouncing dictatorship in Pakistan when it exists here?”

To be sure, King Gyanendra’s move this week has been welcomed by many Nepalis who were disenchanted by the instability caused by fractious and corrupt parliamentary leaders and by an insurgency which has cost 12,000 lives in nine years. If this is what the king had to do to restore peace, they say, so be it. After all, the king has staked all and gambled his own throne by taking over power.

They have a point. And many expect the king to pull a rabbit out of the hat and restore peace so that the country can start lifting the living standards of Nepal’s 25 million people, most of whom live below the poverty line. In his speech on February 1, King Gyanendra said the Nepali people would have to temporarily give up democracy in order to save democracy, and many Nepalis will go along with that. For a while. The king has a window of opportunity in which to deliver.

In the long run, the answer to Maoist totalitarianism is greater and more inclusive democracy, a vibrant free press, and civil liberties. Curtailing freedom polarises society between two radicalisms and wipes out the middle ground. And even as a strategy against the Maoists it could be counterproductive.

But maybe the king does have something up his sleeve. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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