There is always a light

There is always a light
Don't be afraid if you are alone or surrounded by darkness. In some part of the world, the day has just begun. There is a always a light waiting for you to find your way to touch its radiance.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Fourth Estate Under Threat!

By Deepak Adhikari
Kathmandu, Nepal

In the dead of the night on June 5, Khilanath Dhakal, a reporter with the Nagarik daily newspaper, was brutally attacked.
He was in Biratnagar, a once thriving industrial town in Nepal's southern plains. Members of the Youth Association Nepal, a wing of the Unified Marxist Leninist (UML), a party that until June 30 ruled the country, targetted him.
They were angry with his report on June 2 which exposed their attack on a rival gang while inside a local court.
Dhakal, 23, had moved to the border town a year ago. He was invited to an intersection with the pretext of a meeting and then forced to pillion ride a bike. The assailants, armed with bamboo sticks, drove to a secluded place and assaulted him. He sustained serious head injuries. Luckily, not long after his attack, a policeman spotted him running for his life.
A man of slender build, Dhakal is now back to work after undergoing 18 days of treatment in the local hospital’s neurology unit.
“The attack was the worst incident of my life. But on a positive side, it triggered a massive, countrywide campaign and my case became a symbol for a battle for the free press,” Dhakal told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. “My pictures and the accompanying news was covered by all the media and it felt good to be a part of the campaign.”
Undeterred by the assault, he started to file stories for his daily column, often highlighting the wrongdoings of Parshuram Basnet, a local UML activist, who, says Dhakal, ordered the attack.
"Parshuram Basnet became indispensable to certain leaders in UML precisely because he has been able to acquire overwhelming dominance over rivals in the environs in and around Biratnagar,” wrote columnist Aditya Adhikari for The Kathmandu Post in June.
This phenomenon, when the state allows the prime suspect loose, in disregard for the rule of law, has cast a dark shadow over Nepal's fragile and troubled transition to democracy.
Private media flourished after the restoration of democracy in 1990 and is credited with creating awareness about the fledgling set-up.
It also helped the 2006 pro-democracy movement that forced King Gyanendra to step down and paved the way for an end to the decade long Maoist insurgency. But since then, the media has found itself in a murky environment.
Several armed groups, all jockeying for power, launched after the Maoist insurgency ended. They often threaten journalists, prompting them to self-censor.
Culture of impunity
Journalists like Dhakal, working in a hostile environment outside the capital Kathmandu, no longer feel safe.
There is a culture of impunity that encourages and protects armed groups, which rely on violence and even resort to murder in some cases.
These groups could either be purely criminal or gangs masquerading as political outfits. Often nurtured and used by political parties, the government rarely punishes them.
This protection, Dhakal said, is at the heart of the crisis.
"This also shows how weak the state has become,” he said. “If the officials arrest these people, then there is pressure from the politicians. Fearing for their jobs, the officials bow to the highhandedness from the politicos."
These days, Dhakal, who has recently reported on an illegal arms deal involving Basnet, treads cautiously, informing the local police about his whereabouts.
But, he adds, he still “can't think of any other (better) profession except journalism."
The Committee to Protect Journalists’ impunity index, released in June, ranked Nepal as the seventh most dangerous country out of 13 from 2001 and 2010.
“Political parties have, in competition with each other for power and resources, built vertical networks that extend from Kathmandu to the districts ... and operate in a grey zone between legality and illegality,” wrote Adhikari.
A series of attacks
It has been a long time since journalists in Nepal have been able to report freely.
Several recent examples demonstrate the kind of threats reporters encounter.
The assassination in February 2010 of Jamim Shah, a media entrepreneur was covered internationally. After providing detailed coverage of the circumstances leading to Shah's murder in the Kantipur, the country's influential daily, its editor and publisher also received threatening phone calls.
In January 2009, Uma Singh, a radio reporter in her mid-20s based in the restive southern plains of the country, had written articles critical of the local administration. A group of armed men hacked her to death. 
In December 2009, Tika Bista, a 22-year-old journalist with the national Nepali-language newspaper the Rajdhani Daily was working in the remote western hills of Nepal. Members of the Maoist party attacked her until she was unconscious, leaving her 20 metres under a cliff, with severe head injuries and lacerations. Forced to flee, she now works from the Kathmandu office.
Maoists and the monarch
The darkest day in recent history for Nepal's media was on February 1, 2005. Gun-toting army soldiers raided newsrooms across Kathmandu and major cities, following King Gyanendra’s orders. All communication systems, including the internet, were shut down. The country's half-dozen TV channels and radio stations were banned from broadcasting anything except the royal proclamation.
During the King's autocratic rule, from February 2005 to April 2006, there was a severe media clampdown and heavy censorship. After the restoration of the parliament in 2006, however, the interim constitution guaranteed freedom of press.
Before that period, the biggest threat to the safety and independence of Nepal's journalists came from the Maoist insurgency.
Journalists, especially those critical of the leftist rebels, were threatened, kidnapped and murdered. 
Shailendra Kharel, a freelance photojournalist who worked in the conflict-hit midwestern region for theKantipur daily, said journalists were often caught in the middle.
"If we covered Maoists, the army would suspect us for collaborating with the rebels. On the other hand, the Maoists would call us spies if we met security personnel,” he said.
More than 14 journalists were killed during the insurgency, a majority of them at the hands of state security forces.
It was after that period that criminal gangs entered the fray. Threatening journalists, such as the young Dhakal, they punish those who even think of writing anything critical of their behaviour.
"Things like these tend be a natural byproduct of the transitional phase that we're in," said Dharma Adhikari, the general secretary for the Media Foundation, a Kathmandu-based research group.
In recent years, the threats from non-state actors have far outweighed the ones from the state, but the Nepalese media is ‘revolutionary,’ he argued.
"The media has been one of the most vocal institutions in the transformation taking place in Nepal,” he concluded, echoing the sentiments of many who continue to endure pressure in their fight for press freedom.
Deepak Adhikari is a Kathmandu-based journalist whose work has been published in his native Nepal and internationally, including TIME magazine. 

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