Journalists are being arrested for their political beliefs, in eerie reminder of Panchayat daysAt least two journalists are in detention on suspicion of their affiliation with the Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal.
On Saturday, police arrested Khem Thapaliya, editor-in-chief of Jaljala, a vernacular monthly, from his Bagbazaar office, and charged him with being involved in suspicious activities. Two weeks ago, police arrested another journalist, Sajan Saud of eJhajhalko, an online portal, from Pokhara. Last month, Jitendra Maharjan, the editor of Nhugu Jwojoloppa, a Nepal Bhasa newspaper, was released from police custody only after a Supreme Court order. He had also been arrested from his office.
Thapaliya, Saud and Maharjan are journalists but that’s not the only thing they have in common—all three of them are considered to have close relations with the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal, which was branded a criminal outfit by the government in March, and banned all its activities.
Rights activists and freedom of expression campaigners say they are concerned about the increase in this peculiar pattern in arrest, where the authorities are taking journalists into custody based on their political beliefs.
“It’s extremely undemocratic to arrest a writer or a journalist on the basis of his or her political beliefs,” said Taranath Dahal, executive chief of Freedom Forum, a civil liberties group that works in the area of free press and freedom of expression. “It’s against the freedom of expression.”
But arrests are not the only tactic authorities are employing to harass journalists for their political beliefs. In what is possibly the first such instance in modern history, the Department of Information and Broadcasting recently refused to renew the press accreditation card of a journalist.
Diya Chand, the executive editor of Sanchar Kendra, a news portal, said she was surprised when officials refused to renew her press card.
The department, according to Diya, told her that her certificates needed to be verified before renewing her press card because it had received complaints. Diya, however, said that this was just a ploy to delay her card renewal process.
“The department authorities told me that they know my certificates were genuine. But they couldn’t do anything because they had orders from higher authorities,” Diya told the Post.
Diya said department officials asked her explicitly about a photo of Kumar Poudel, the Sarlahi district in-charge of the Communist Party of Nepal who was shot dead by police. While the police say Poudel was killed after he had fired upon them, Diya’s photo showed Poudel handcuffed. The National Human Rights Commission subsequently launched an inquiry into Poudel’s death.
However, Krishna Murari Neupane, director-general of the Department of Information and Broadcasting, said that Diya’s press card issue had been resolved and that she should get a renewal soon. “After lingering for more than a week the Department has called me to receive my press card today,” Diya said.
Activists nonetheless say that the authorities keep a close watch on journalists and writers who are believed to have close relations with the Chand party.
The practice of denying press accreditation cards to journalists was rampant during the one-party Panchayat rule, but none have been turned away since the restoration of democracy in 1990.
“There is no legal provision that allows the Department of Information and Broadcasting to deny a press card to a journalist,” said Dahal, who is also a former chairman of the Federation of Nepali Journalists. “Such incidents are reminiscent of the Panchayat era. The government has now started denying accreditation card to journalists they don’t like.”
In yet another incident, on August 9, police attempted to arrest Janaki Chaudhary, the editor of Dang Sandesh and a member of the Chand-led party’s journalists’ organisation, during an interaction organised by the Federation of Nepali Journalists. Journalists participating in the programme, however, managed to prevent her arrest. At least three journalists were injured in the scuffle.
“Every citizen has the right to political beliefs and political opinion,” said Dahal. “The state cannot go after a citizen for his or her political faith.”
Thapaliya and Saud are still in police custody. The Federation of Nepali Journalists and Freedom Forum have both condemned their arrests.
“According to information received by the Freedom Forum, Thapaliya was arrested for his alleged affiliation with the Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal,” the forum said in a press statement. “Arresting journalists from the office because of their ideology signals violation of their press freedom rights. Freedom of expression is a fundamental right provided by Nepal's constitution.”
Government authorities have defended their actions, saying the journalists are being questioned for their involvement in activities perpetrated by the Chand party.
According to Uttam Raj Subedi, the senior superintendent at the Metropolitan Police Range, Thapaliya was arrested for being involved in suspicious activities. “We have respect for journalists. We are investigating some statements that he had made,” he said, without going into details.
After the arrest of Chand group’s Kathmandu Valley in-charge in July, Thapaliya, in his role as the general secretary of the Chand party-affiliated All Nepal Peoples’ Cultural Federation, had issued a statement condemning the arrest.
Since banning the activities of the Communist Party of Nepal, police have arrested hundreds of party cadres from several districts. The government ban came into force following two bomb blasts in the Capital, which killed one person and injured two others.
At least three Chand cadres have died so far in police action while five others died when improvised explosive devices in their possession went off accidentally.
Though the government has said it is open to talks, the Chand party has put forth three conditions: an official letter for dialogue, lifting of the ban on the party’s activities, and the unconditional release of its cadres.
The Communist Party of Nepal is an offshoot of the Maoist party which waged a decade-long war against the state in 1996. While the Maoist party today is in government, after a merger with the CPN-UML, the Chand party has rejected the mainstream Maoists, gone underground and pledged the launching of what it calls a “unified revolution”.
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