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Nepalese Capital Paralyzed by Strike Over New Press Law

A one-day strike to protest tough new curbs on the news media by Nepal's royalist administration paralyzed the capital city on Friday.

Most schools and businesses shut down in the capital, Kathmandu, Friday, as political activists and journalists protested what they call an assault on media freedom.

A tough new law imposed earlier this month by King Gyanendra's royalist administration bans FM radio stations from broadcasting news, bars the media from criticizing the king, and imposes stiffer penalties and longer jail terms for defamation.

The head of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, Bishnu Nisthuri, is among those protesting the new law.

Mr. Nishthuri says the administration must withdraw the "black law," which he says is aimed at crippling press freedom and intimidating the media.

A government spokesman says the law is intended to make the press more responsible.

Friday's protest was called by Nepal's seven main political parties, after the government threatened to shut down the FM radio station owned by the Kantipur group, the nation's largest media group. The station continued to broadcast news-related programs, in defiance of the new law.

The Supreme Court has asked the government not to take any action until it hears an appeal by the broadcaster.

FM radio stations are a major source of independent news for many people in Nepal, where about half the population is illiterate. The government claims news broadcasts on FM stations encourage an insurgency by Nepal's Maoist rebels.

King Gyanendra has tried to curb dissent since he seized power in February, imposing restrictions on the media, and jailing many journalists. But observers say much of the private media have not toed the line, prompting the administration to come out with the tough law.

Kanik Dixt, editor of Himal publications in Kathmandu, says the media are determined to retain their independence and fight the new law.

"We are engaged in what Nepalese call 'Avagya,' which means resisting and not conforming to the government diktat, which means, essentially, that FM radio continues to broadcast news, and the print media refuses to go along with strictures, such as not being allowed to write against any member of the royal family. In this day and age, that can never be accepted," he said.

The king says he took power to stem the Maoist rebellion wracking the country, and has promised to restore democracy. His critics say his actions, including restricting the media, show he is not serious about implementing his promise.