The fight for democracy and press freedom in Nepal

Nepalese journalists played a leading role in the historic revolution that overthrew the King and restored democracy and press freedoms to their Himalayan homeland

By Vincent Lim
AsiaMedia Contributing Writer

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

When Nepalese ruler King Gyanendra issued his Royal Proclamation on Feb. 1, 2005 and installed himself as the absolute ruler of Nepal, he met little resistance at first.

With the backing of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), the King dismissed the Sher Bahadur Dueba government, declared a state of internal emergency and cut off communications with the rest of the world. He also banned journalists from writing news articles that challenged the letter and spirit of the Royal Proclamation, the legitimacy of the royal government or that supported terrorist activities.

Although it appeared as though the Nepali media would be silenced under the King's rule, Nepalese journalists found ways for their voices to be heard.

In response to the King's actions, journalists spoke out. The Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), the leading journalists' rights group in the country, condemned the royal takeover -- even as the military and government sought to censor the press. The Internet played a significant and unexpected role in getting the word out about the plight of Nepalese journalists to the international community, as well. Dinesh Wagle -- who still blogs on United We Blog!  -- and other Nepalese bloggers used their sites to circumvent government media restrictions on print, television and radio and communicate their thoughts and opinions to the world outside of Nepal.

Because of bloggers, FNJ and other Nepali media rights groups, the world became aware of the threats to press freedom in the country. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and other media watchdog groups around the world, expressed concerns about the threat to press freedoms in Nepal.

The King lifted the state of emergency two months after issuing his Royal Proclamation, but journalists still felt media rights were being violated and continued protesting and speaking out. In spite of the protests, the government touted security improvements in the nation's ongoing battle against Maoists rebels after the royal takeover. The King justified his actions, such as censoring the press, by claiming that the Maoist insurgency forced him to take full control of the country to restore peace and stability. The 10-year Maoist insurgency had left over 10,000 people dead at the time the King ascended to power.

Many journalists paid for the supposedly improved security within their country with their jobs. Under the King's rule, the ministry of information announced that all government ads would only go to media outlets run by the state. The result was that hundreds of journalists lost their jobs, and the public lost an important source of information.

Journalists continued speaking out against the economic and legal challenged they faced and took the royal government to court on a number of occasions. FNJ condemned the government's decision to order Nepal FM 91.8 to forfeit its operating license for violating the ban on airing news on FM radio. Nepal's Supreme Court ultimately ruled in favor of Nepal 91.8 and issued a stay order against the government, which prompted many FM radio stations to begin airing news programs again.

But journalists did not win every case they brought against the government.

The King also announced a plan to issue a media ordinance that would increase fines for publishing banned material and renew the ban on FM radio news. After hearing arguments from government lawyers and the attorney general in defense of the ordinance, the Supreme Court refused to issue a stay order against the controversial press law -- a setback in journalists' struggle to restore democracy and press freedom to their country.

Undeterred, journalists continued to voice their concerns -- even as authorities continued arresting and harassing journalists who participated in protests.

Even after over 24 journalists who participated in a FNJ protest rally marking the one-year anniversary of the coup.

And even though some believed there was a potential conflict of interest because the press needed to remain objective and not meddle in political affairs.

In the end, the struggle of journalists would not be vain.

Following weeks of intense and violent protests, in which journalists and other members of Nepali society participated in, the King issued a proclamation that returned power to the people on Apr. 21, 2006. Seven-party alliance political leaders, who were throw out of power by the King, and journalists questioned the sincerity of the King's pledge to restore democracy. They called on Nepali citizens to continue protesting until democracy and press freedoms were completely restored -- which they did.

Giving into pressure from protesters, the King stepped down, announced the restoration of Parliament and lifted censorship.

New Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala vowed to protect the rights of journalists, and a meeting of council of ministers of the new government annulled three media ordinances enacted during the King's rule.

Journalists' rights groups, however, continue to stress that the fight for complete press freedom in the country is not over. After the restoration democracy, reports found that many journalists and media organizations took money from the royal government to write in its favor. Journalists are now starting to acknowledge that true press freedom will never materialize if journalists freely accept bribes.

The Nepali media also continues to face threats from the Maoists who may soon be allowed to participate in the country's political process. Maoist leaders promised to not physically attack or threaten journalists and said that they are committed to press freedom, but FNJ expressed concern over recent threats against Radio Birgunj and Kalika FM. Some politicians were critical of the agreement reached with the Maoists, which will include them in the interim government, because it does not call for the rebels to refrain from using violence.

Although the country is now moving towards a future without a King, Nepali citizens felt let down by many of their political leaders in the not-so-recent past. Ever since 1990, when Nepal's people first earned their democratic rights, citizens have been critical of those who claimed to represent their interests. The future remains uncertain for Nepal and its citizens, and the question remains as to whether the public has finally finishing mourning over the bloody palace massacre of June 1, 2001 that brought then-Prince Gyanendra to power.

Absolute Power and the Press in Nepal was edited by Vincent Lim, with text and research by Vincent Lim and Annie Besant. Please email us with corrections or comments.
Last updated on 6/20/06.