Year of living dangerously for Nepal's reporters

Peace talks with rebels stall investigations into the deaths of eight journalists.

To his wife and colleagues, Krishna Sen was a kind husband and a journalist who wrote passionately about the troubles of the Nepali peasants.

To the government of Nepal, he was a Maoist revolutionary, a supporter of a terrorist organization that had launched a seven-year-long insurgency that killed 8,000 people and brought this small Himalayan kingdom to the edge of anarchy.

Finding out who is right is difficult. Mr. Sen, the editor in chief of the popular Janadesh daily newspaper, disappeared May 20, 2002. Newspapers reported that he was killed by Nepal's police force while in custody. His body has never been found.

Flipping through an album on the floor of her apartment, Sen's widow, Takma K.C., stops at a picture of Sen surrounded by armed men, who were his prison guards during a previous arrest in 1999. "Except for these photos, I don't have anything of my husband," she says, her eyes filling with tears.

The deaths of a few local journalists in a distant Himalayan kingdom may not get as much attention as those of foreign journalists in Iraq or Afghanistan. But if the past year is a gauge, then the long civil war in Nepal places it among the most dangerous places in the world for journalists. I1n all, eight reporters were killed last year; 176 were arrested, kidnapped, or detained; and dozens more were tortured by both the Maoist rebels and by the Nepalese government, according to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. No legal inquiry has investigated these killings, and despite steady pressure from Nepali and international human rights organizations, none is expected any day soon.

The official reason is that such investigations would stir up bad feeling at a delicate time when the Maoists and the government are engaged in peace talks.

"Inquiries will be made, the truth will get out, but at the present time it is not appropriate for me to talk about such issues," says Rameshnath Pandey, minister of information and communication. But Mr. Pandey, a former journalist and a close friend of Sen, adds that it's inappropriate to even ask the present government about events that took place during the state of emergency which lasted from November 2001 to August 2002 and was declared by the previous government of Sher Bahadur Deuba.

Local journalists say that all efforts to investigate the deaths of Sen and others have been met with denials and coverup. "Since the peace talks began, all cases are closed, because asking questions now endangers the peace process," says Tara Nath Dahal, chairman of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. "We are not afraid, because during the state of emergency last year we were marching in the streets. But we are worried that the same thing (the killing of journalists) could happen in the future."

A government panel composed of three ministers concluded last summer that neither the police nor the Royal Nepal Army had arrested Sen. But the report mentioned that an unclaimed body resembling Sen's was found around the time of his disappearance.

A police doctor, Harihar Wasti, said he conducted an autopsy of a man who resembled Sen about a month after Sen's disappearance. The body had two bullet wounds in the abdomen.

In a report prepared by the federation and cited by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Mr. Dahal documented the execution of the eight Nepalese journalists, and the detention and torture of countless others. While six of the scribes were reportedly killed by either police or the Royal Nepal Army, two were killed by Maoists, apparently on charges of spying.

Complicating investigations is the tendency of journalists here to take sides and blur the line between neutral observer and active political participant.

Om Sharma is a prime example. As chief reporter of the Janadesh - the same pro-Maoist newspaper that Krishna Sen edited - Mr. Sharma considers himself a supporter of the Maoists although not a member of the party.

"We believe in Maoism, it is the ideal for us, but we are not Maoists," says Sharma. "It is the same for journalists who take B.P. Koirala (a Nepali centrist politician) as their ideal. We believe we can bring our political mission and our journalistic mission together.

"We are fully aware that if the current cease-fire collapses, we could be arrested," adds Sharma, who was detained for 118 days during the state of emergency. "If we go alone to the village to report, we can be arrested by the Army and killed silently and thrown away in the brush. But we can't run away from danger."

While the government denies arresting or killing Sen, Takma says that her husband's last living hours were in police custody. She knows this, she says, because Army interrogators who detained her for nearly 20 days after Sen disappeared told her.

On the final day of detention, she says a senior officer came into her room and told her she would be released. "I asked the officer, 'Please tell me about my husband,' " she recalls. "The officer told me, 'He is in police custody, and in my opinion, I think he is safe.' I was comforted by this, so I just asked about his condition. I wonder now why I didn't ask to see him."

A few weeks later, newspapers reported that Sen had been killed. Takma went back to the Army officer who assured her of Sen's safety, and he denied ever telling her that Sen was in police custody. A few days after that, Takma received a second shock. The Maoist Party announced in a local newspaper that Krishna Sen was a senior Maoist leader and a martyr.

Even today, Takma finds herself questioning her husband's identity. "I don't know, I don't know," she says.

"He was concerned with poor people, with rural life. He was sympathetic to the Maoists, because they were helping the poor people. But he was not involved in actions of the People's Army, (the Maoists military wing)."

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