Mostly bad newsThe year just ended was marked by setbacks for press freedom
Maintaining neutrality in media coverage during the Madhes protests was a big challenge because the agitating groups sought to promote their propaganda through the news media and journalists.
The beginning of 2015 was marked by the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris in which nearly a dozen journalists were killed, coinciding with discussions in Nepal on enshrining press freedom in the upcoming constitution. A few months later, a massive earthquake flattened large swathes of the central part of the country. The year ended with despair owing to the indefinite political protest launched by the Madhesi Morcha which severely obstructed free press practices. Many journalists in Nepal looked at the promulgation of the Constitution with hope and optimism. The Preamble assures “complete press freedom” and Article 19 states that there shall not be any sort of pre-censorship. The document also guarantees that no media institution or outlet shall be closed, have their equipment seized or have their registration cancelled due to the publication of any material.
Yet, media stakeholders, including the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), criticised the broader restrictions against press freedom as being a step backward from the freer Interim Constitution. According to the FNJ, the “reasonable restrictions” on acts that undermine nationalism and good relations between federal units, acts of treason, dissemination of false material, disrespect of labour, incitement to untouchability and gender discrimination are unreasonable.
A number of perpetrators of attacks against journalists were brought to justice. On April 22, the District Court of Dhanusha convicted Umesh Yadav of the murder of Janakpur-based journalist Uma Singh in 2009 and sentenced him to life in prison. At least four journalists—Milan Nepali, Prakash Thakuri, Chitra Narayan Shrestha and Madan Poudel—are still missing since the armed conflict which lasted from 1996 to 2006. There has been no significant effort by government agencies to investigate the disappearances.
The April earthquake caused massive damage, and the media sector suffered its share of misfortune. A Gorkhapatra journalist Suman Bomjan died in a building collapse. The office buildings of many media houses were also badly damaged. Radio and television stations were affected, and newspapers suspended regular publication for an indefinite period, leading to many journalists becoming unemployed. A few media houses continued disseminating news reports from temporary shelters.
There was massive misreporting and selective media coverage of the natural disaster by many parachute journalists from various world media. These media persons focused more on the destroyed historic monuments in Kathmandu and avalanches on Everest that killed over a dozen Sherpa mountaineers than on the immense casualties in the Kathmandu Valley and surrounding districts, including Gorkha and Sindhupalchok. Most of the foreign media reported as if the entire country had been turned into rubble. At the same time, a social media campaign was started against the Indian media’s dramatised coverage of the earthquake and India’s relief efforts in Nepal. Indian television channels distorted the scale of destruction by using insensitive language with respect to the victims and their family members or by misusing rescue helicopters to take dramatic video footage.
The second half of 2015 was marred by the Madhes movement which threatened the independent media and journalists, particularly in the districts of the proposed Province Two. The Nepali news media was largely divided into for and against the Madhes movement. Many radio stations and television channels were used as propaganda tools to broadcast political activities that incited further violence.
Journalists affiliated with the national media and non-Madhesi journalists in the Tarai districts were threatened and atta-cked because of their media coverage. Cadres of the Madhesi Morcha threatened and attacked journalists besides obstructing the distribution of Kathmandu-based newspapers in Province Two. Similarly, protesters vandalised and burnt vehicles of different media houses, including the Annapurna Post on August 23, Nagarik on September 2 and Kantipur on December 27. Police personnel were also found responsible for obstructing press activities in the region. They manhandled reporters when they were photographing demonstrators killed by the police. Hence, journalists suffered at the hands of both the police and demonstrators.
Speculating that India had imposed an ‘undeclared blockade’ of Nepal in support of the Morcha’s protest movement, cable distributors briefly blocked Indian television channels in Kathmandu and other major cities. The Ministry of Communication and Information intervened and forced the cable distributors to resume showing Indian channels. In retaliation, Morcha cadres forced many Nepali-language television channels to stop broadcasting. The CPN-Maoist (Biplav faction) issued threats against cable distributors airing Indian programmes, and hurled a petrol bomb at Dish Home Office, a cable TV distributor in Lalitpur, on December 16.
Maintaining neutrality in media coverage during the Madhes protests was a big challenge because the agitating groups sought to promote their propaganda through the news media and journalists. Evidence was found indicating that many local radio stations in the Tarai had been used as political tools to call political cadres to defy curfew orders and participate in violent activities led by the Madhesi Morcha. The FNJ stated
during the Tarai-Madhes Media Conference that there was a serious impact of the Madhes movement on the media industry, seen in the lay-offs of journalists, non-renewal of their contracts and non-payment of the salary of several months. Similarly, a special taskforce on media monitoring, sponsored by the Press Council, submitted a media monitoring report which concluded that Kathmandu-based media were partially responsible for making the Madhes movement violent by deliberately sidelining news reports sent by Tarai journalists or distorting them significantly.
The prolonged strike and trade embargo led to shortages of newsprint and printing ink, forcing newspapers to stop publication for weeks and causing many journalists to leave the profession. Similarly, because of the politically-divided media, harmonious relations between Nepali communities were jeopardised as the news media amplified hate speech. Last year, Reporters Sans Frontières, a global media watchdog, had named Nepal as being among the countries which had significantly improved the press freedom scenario. However, in 2015, the scenario was quite the opposite and deteriorating.
Acharya is a researcher on media ethics and accountability and is affiliated to the University of Ottawa, Canada