In Nepal, pen meets sword

The civil war is snuffing out independent journalism, part of a once-vibrant spirit of democracy.

When Nepal began its experiment with democracy in 1990, the Himalayan kingdom had few independent journalists. By 2004, four private TV channels, more than 600 newspapers and tabloids, and 46 FM stations became a testament to a vibrant democratic spirit here.

But all that is now threatened. Nepal's burgeoning media - indeed its entire democratic project - is becoming one of the casualties of a civil war between Maoists and the government, with both sides targeting journalists.

This winter, I was on a reporting trip 40 miles east of Katmandu. Like most areas outside the capital or other major cities, this was Maoist-held territory.

A rebel commander who was armed told me what he thought of journalists: "What's their use, anyway? They sit inside cozy rooms and produce heaps of nonsense, while we wage a war for liberating everyone, even them."

He also issued a warning: "We know your name. Be careful what you write. Remember Gyanendra Khadka and Dekendra Thapa?" The two men were my colleagues, killed by the rebels.

I returned to Katmandu, believing that I had arrived to safety. But the next day, Feb. 1, King Gyanendra overthrew the government, and cracked down immediately on journalists. Army officers marched into independent media houses, censored stories, and ordered TV crews to air the royal address repeatedly. Foreign news channels and publications were banned. FM stations were barred from carrying news and were limited to purely entertainment programs. For more than a week, telephone, cellphone, and Internet services were shut down.

Five months later, 2,000 radio workers have lost their jobs, more than 500 journalists have been arrested and released later, and over two dozen tabloids in the districts have closed following government orders.

The government is squeezing independent media by barring public institutions from placing advertisements. In a bid to "make journalism a respectable profession," the ministry of information and communication is finalizing an ordinance that would impose heavy penalties on reports deemed unfavorable to the regime.

Some journalists here have paid a high price. Since Feb. 1, one journalist has been shot dead by the Maoists and several others have been abducted. In the past four years, 16 journalists have been killed, five by the rebels, and 11 by the state, according to INSEC, a human rights organization.

Journalist Bikram Giri was abducted by Maoists in May while on a reporting trip in remote Darchula, his home district. He was forced by his captors to walk as much as 30 miles a day for three days, and sleep in rooms littered with bombs.

That has not deterred Mr. Giri. "I am returning to my district shortly and resuming the reporting trip," says Giri. When prodded on why he will take the risk, he says, "I want to do a big story."

Despite hardships, journalists see the significance of this period for Nepal.

"There was never a more exciting time for journalists in Nepal," says Narayan Wagle, editor of Nepal's most influential daily, Kantipur. "All the conflicts that lay in hibernation for the last 250 years are in a state of convergence now. For the first time in history, we are publicly debating the utility of Nepal's oldest institution, the monarchy. We are discussing ways to end the King's control over the Army. The concept of inclusive democracy has been gaining currency."

With Parliament absent for the past three years, and mainstream political parties reduced to obscurity, media is the only potent democratic voice, says Prateek Pradhan, editor of the Katmandu Post.

"We have successfully pressured Maoist chairman Prachanda into issuing a public apology for the first time for the killing of civilians," he says.

To protest crackdowns on the media, newspapers have carried blank editorials and opinion pages. FM stations have defied government bans on broadcasts by piping news through loudspeakers.

As the nine-year conflict that has claimed more than 12,000 lives grinds on, independent journalism remains one of the last reminders of democratic yearnings here.

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