Thursday, January 31, 2013

Nepal: Charges laid in 2004 murder of Nepalese journalist; media safety concerns persist


Based on IFEX member reports from Committee to Protect Journalists , Federation of Nepali Journalists , Freedom Forum , Reporters Without Borders , World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters - AMARC

By Marianna Tzabiras

IFEX members have expressed concern over the insecurity for journalists in Dailekh, a district in western Nepal, where an investigation is underway into the 2004 murder of journalist Dekendra Thapa.

On 4 January 2013, authorities arrested five of the eight individuals allegedly involved in Thapa's abduction and subsequent murder. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), all five have affiliations with the governing party - four belong to the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (UCPN-Maoist), which heads Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai's coalition, and one is affiliated with the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, a breakaway faction of the ruling party. On 8 January, Bhattarai expressed anger over the arrests which he said were part of a "plot" to derail the peace process by reviving the cases that occurred during the conflict period.

Since the arrests, journalists in Dailekh have been threatened by supporters of the UCPN-Maoist, report Freedom Forum and the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ). They have come under attack for demanding justice in Thapa's case and for reporting on the ongoing investigation.

During a recent visit by Bhattarai to Dailekh on 23 January, journalists were prevented from reporting on the prime minister's address and were publicly warned by a youth wing of the ruling party that some of them would meet the same fate as Thapa. Clashes broke out between the prime minister's supporters and the opposition, injuring six journalists. Party supporters also vandalised the offices of the Hamro Teshro Ankha daily, according to Freedom Forum and FNJ.

Fearing repercussions, the next day as many as 22 journalists left Dailekh and fled to Surkhet, a district in mid-western Nepal. FNJ Chairman Shiva Gaunle told CPJ that the exodus of journalists had caused two dailies to stop printing, while another daily was suspended and two FM stations went off the air.

"The threat to the community broadcasters and journalists in Dailekh is a serious breach of freedom of expression, which is unacceptable by any standard. Reports emerging from Dailekh indicate that the threat to the media workers is a pre-meditated move, which is highly condemnable," said the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC).

"We urge the authorities to put an end to such threats and guarantee journalists the basic right to work in safety," said Reporters Without Borders. “The process of national reconciliation now under way does not mean truth and the fight against impunity should be abandoned."

Following the exodus, IFEX members on the ground worked to ensure the safe return of the journalists to the district. A team from FNJ's headquarters met with the Home Minister to inform him of the grave situation. The displaced journalists decided to return to the district on 29 January, after a three-point commitment made by the regional administration office ensuring safety and security for the journalists, according to news reports.

With respect to the Thapa murder case, some progress has been made. A Dailekh-based reporter told Freedom Forum that one of the journalists' conditions for their return to the district had been that murder charges be laid against the accused in the Thapa case. The Dailekh district attorney had been under pressure from the Attorney General to halt the investigation, although the prime minister recently denied accusations he was behind this order, reports CPJ. On 28 January, murder charges were finally filed against nine district cadres and leaders of the Maoists parties for their involvement in the Thapa murder. A Dailekh court is expected to formally begin hearings in the case on 31 January, according to CPJ. The district attorney's move has raised hopes among the victim's family and the entire Nepali media community that justice will be served in this case, says Freedom Forum.

Nevertheless, IFEX members remain vigilant as attacks against the press by cadres of the ruling Maoist party continue. According to FNJ, on 28 January journalists were beaten and pelted with stones while they were reporting on a programme in Kavre district attended by the party's top three leaders.

One journalist was taken to hospital and is in serious condition, reports Freedom Forum. Three other journalists were threatened with physical attacks if they published any photographs or stories about the incident, according to FNJ.