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This column is related to World Press Freedom Day, which is 3 May: NEPAL: JOURNALISM IN A TIME OF EMERGENCY

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KATMANDU, Apr 1 2005 (IPS) - On February 1 Nepal\’s King Gyanendra sacked the prime minister he had appointed, took power himself, and declared a state of national emergency, and Nepal\’s vibrant and free press was suddenly muzzled, writes Kunda Dixit, editor and co-publisher of the Katmandu-based weekly newspaper, Nepali Times. In this article, the author writes that constitutionally the emergency will lapse next week unless reimposed by parliament. But there is no parliament and no elected prime minister. There are strong calls from political leaders, activists, the media and the international community to have the emergency lifted and the press freed. King Gyanendra said his army needed the emergency to concentrate on defeating the Maoists. But muzzling the media has actually helped the Maoists because the censored press has lost credibility and few believe it even when the government is telling the truth. In addition, the media\’s reporting of Maoist atrocities are also not getting reported, and in the absence of facts wild rumours are rife. Prolonging the emergency will just bolster the argument of those who believe that it was not really designed to curb Maoism, but to put down pluralism. Lifting the state of emergency is in the interest of this country, its people, and its monarch.

Up until January 31, 2005, Nepal’s media was one of the freest in the world. The next day it was plunged back into the dark ages.

On February 1 King Gyanendra sacked the prime minister he had appointed, took power himself, and declared a state of national emergency. Nepal’s vibrant and free press was suddenly muzzled.

For many younger journalists who had not known a time of censorship it was a shock to be shackled. They had got used to the freedoms, and perhaps had taken it for granted. But for more veteran editors who had lived and worked through the days of censorship before the 1990 People’s Movement restored democracy to Nepal, there was a strong sense of déjà vu.

The restrictions were unprecedented even by pre-1990 standards. Armed soldiers were in the newsrooms, reading and approving everything before it went to press. Radio stations were instructed not to broadcast news, only music. Cable TV operators were told to take out Indian news channels, including a Nepali-language station uplinked from New Delhi. The BBC’s Nepali Service, which used to be relayed by ten local FM stations all over Nepal, was taken off the air. Soldiers guarded Internet service providers and subscribers were blocked for a week. Land lines and mobile phones were cut off.

The media immediately started looking for ways to get the story out. Imaginative forms of resistance cropped up. Newspapers printed blank editorials, others left white holes where paragraphs were expunged. Others wrote editorials on arcane subjects like smelly socks that ridiculed the censors with the absurdity of it all. Some resorted to metaphor, lamenting the chopping down of trees along Kathmandu’s streets and calling for an urgent ”restoration of greenery”. New websites and bloggers hit the web after the Internet was restored, censored paragraphs were put on the sites as white spaces that could be read after being highlighted with the mouse.

It has now been three months and there are signs of some relaxation. Land phones have been restored, the Internet is back, mildly critical editorials are now tolerated, and self-censorship is the order of the day. But mobile phones are still out, the curb on news over radio stays, Indian TV channels are still blocked, a recent issue of The Economist was seized, and shortwave radios are once more in great demand as people turn to the BBC Nepali Service broadcast from London to find out what is really happening in their own country.

Constitutionally the emergency will lapse next week unless reimposed by parliament. But there is no parliament and no elected prime minister. There are strong calls from political leaders, activists, the media and the international community to have the emergency lifted and the press freed.

King Gyanendra said his army needed the emergency to concentrate on defeating the Maoists. But critics say this is like using a stick when a carrot would do. Muzzling the media has actually helped the Maoists because the censored press has lost credibility and few believe it even when the government is telling the truth. In addition, the media’s reporting of Maoist atrocities are also not getting reported, and in the absence of facts wild rumours are rife.

Prolonging the emergency will just bolster the argument of those who believe that it was not really designed to curb Maoism, but to put down pluralism. Lifting the state of emergency is in the interest of this country, its people, and its monarch. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

 
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