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RIGHTS-NEPAL: Maoists Attack Journos, Threaten Media Freedom

Mallika Aryal

KATHMANDU, Dec 29 2008 (IPS) - When Kunda Dixit, editor of the ‘Nepali Times’ and 12 other staff members of the Himalmedia publishing house were attacked and injured by supporters of Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M), a week ago, it was a sign that Nepal’s ruling party intends to influence the media through intimidation.

“This is not a labour issue, this is a press freedom issue,” said Dixit, an internationally known writer and commentator on media issues. ‘’The Maoists want to control the media.”

What immediately provoked the Maoists were Himalmedia publications, the Nepali language ‘Himal Khabarpatrika’ and the English-language Nepali Times, which carried reports of Maoist militants threatening businesses and media organisations.

Two of the attackers were identified as Ramesh Babu Panta, leader of the CPN-M affiliated hotel and restaurant labour union, and Ramesh K.C. of the media and press union in Lalitpur. They along with a mob of 50 others forcibly entered the premises and beat up the staff.

The intimidation follows a pattern of recent attacks on the media by supporters of the CPN-M, the political arm of the Maoist rebels who waged a decade-long civil war against Nepal’s monarchy, before signing a peace accord in 2006. General elections in April saw the CPN-M winning most of the seats in the Constituent Assembly that is preparing to write a constitution for the new republic.

On Oct. 20, the offices of the ‘Terai Times’ newspaper in Janakpur, eastern Nepal, were vandalised and the staff assaulted following the publication of a news article suggesting that the Young Communist League, youth wing of the CPN-M, was providing protection to a prostitution racket.

In another incident, a journalist from a daily newspaper in Nepalgunj in west Nepal informed the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) that he had been verbally abused and threatened on Oct. 21 by a local government official of Banke district, following publication of an article that alleged financial irregularities linked to a construction project.

Similarly, the ‘Kantipur Daily’ and ‘The Kathmandu Post,’ two major newspapers in Nepal, could not be printed from Biratnagar, east Nepal, for several days in a row after Maoist union workers took control over the eastern regional office of Kantipur Publications.

Workers led by the All-Nepal Communication and Printing Publication Workers’ Union have announced that they will not allow the offices of the Kantipur Publications to function until its demands are addressed. These include permanent status for office staff on the rolls for more than 240 days, government-approved salaries and other benefits.

Outrage at such attacks on the Nepali press has been expressed by various media watchdog groups, human rights organisations, political parties and diplomatic missions. The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) and other press freedom activists released a press statement after the attack on Himalmedia, calling it direct interference on media freedom.

Criticism has also come from the OHCHR and the independent National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). ‘’NHRC urges the Nepal government to make necessary arrangement to safeguard media institutions, including Himalmedia, and provide security to journalists,” the commission said.

Similarly, Reporters without Borders, the international press freedom watchdog, said: “We urge the government to take particular care to safeguard press freedom. After the recent wave of attacks on media, the Maoist party took no steps to punish those responsible. The government must guarantee the right of every voice to be heard by punishing violators and by not allowing its supporters to act with the impunity.”

Meanwhile, CPN-M member in the Constituent Assembly Salikram Jammarkattel told the assembly that Himalmedia had assaulted his trade union supporters and that they had retaliated in “self defence”.

On the day of the attack, in a radio interview Jammarkattel said: “Himalmedia brought in outsiders who attacked our representatives when the talks were still going on. No one from our organisation attacked the media house.”

But, two days later, in another interview with a national TV channel he admitted that his group had indeed attacked Himalmedia and hinted at further attacks.

Journalists across the country have since the attacks been carrying out protest programmes and wearing black bands.

Last week, Nepal Media Society and the Editors’ Alliance joined forces with BAN (Broadcasting Association of Nepal), ACORAB (Association of Community Radio Broadcasters Nepal) and KVFBF (Kathmandu Valley FM Broadcasters Forum) to launch the Alliance for Press Freedom. The Alliance brings together Nepal’s national daily newspapers, magazines, television stations, radio networks and news portals.

“We feel enough is enough,” the Alliance said in a statement. Across Nepal many newspapers have left their editorial spaces blank. Protest messages are being carried by TV stations, after their signature tunes, and also by radio broadcasters and news portals.

On Saturday, hundreds of journalists staged a sit-in in Kathmandu with their mouths tied with black bands demanding guarantees of press freedom and security to media offices and journalists.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal, chairman of the CPN-M, blamed the attack on “ex-royalist radicals” who have “infiltrated” his party. Dahal said he has directed the home ministry and ministry of information and communications to take action against those responsible. “The attack was an act of anarchy,” Dahal said.

On Friday, two members of the mob which attacked Himalmedia were taken into police custody. Talks between the FNJ and representatives of the government are also underway at the information ministry.

Vice-chair of the FNJ, Govinda Acharya, said the government has showed positive signs and is committed to take action against those involved in the attacks on the media houses, pay compensation and take steps to ensure press freedom.

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