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Kidnapping of Journalist Highlights Threats to Press Freedom in Nepal

The kidnapping of a Nepali journalist has highlighted the dangers for reporters covering the fragile peace process of the Himalayan state. The former rebel Maoists have been blamed for the abduction and other attacks against the press, but Nepal's media have also been threatened by militant groups in the country's south. Liam Cochrane reports from Kathmandu.

In the southern district of Bara, about 160 kilometers south of Kathmandu, the search continues for missing journalist Birendrah Shah.

There has been no word from the radio, TV and newspaper correspondent since he disappeared two weeks ago while working near the Nepalese border town of Birgunj.

Shah had recently written articles alleging that local members of the Maoist party had been involved in timber smuggling and other illegal activities.

The Maoists, who signed a peace deal last year to end Nepal's decade-long civil war, have denied their members were behind the abduction.

However, the missing journalist's brother, Bhaiya Ram Shah, says there is no doubt the Maoists are responsible.

He says it is guaranteed. He says witnesses saw a Maoist leader named Lal Bahadur Chaudhary take the journalist, and a human rights team from Kathmandu confirmed it.

Police have arrested two men in connection with the kidnapping, but the whereabouts of Birendra Shah remain unknown.

The case is the latest in a string of attacks against the media.

Last month a Maoist-affiliated journalist was shot dead, and this month another reporter survived a bullet to the chest when he refused to give money to ethnic extremists.

Just two days before Birendra Shah was abducted, another journalist was kidnapped in the far west of Nepal, also allegedly by Maoists.

Since the start of this year, the Federation of Nepalese Journalists has documented 196 attacks against the media, including physical attacks, threats and newspaper closures.

The executive director of the federation, R.B. Khatry, says conditions for the media are returning to the dark days that followed King Gyanendra's 2005 takeover of the government, when journalists were arrested and soldiers were stationed in newsrooms to censor news reports.

"After the restoration of democracy, the conditions, working conditions for journalists had improved, but gradually as the peace process is falling apart, the sort of environment we've had to work in is almost the same as during the royal regime," said Khatry.

Many violations of press freedom have been blamed on the Maoists, including a series of aggressive trade union protests, which led to four newspapers being temporarily shut down by Maoist-affiliated workers.

The most serious of these incidents occurred last month, when Maoist supporters damaged the printing presses of Kantipur Publications, the country's biggest media company.

The Maoists also denied responsibility for this attack, saying it was a dispute between workers and management.

But Kantipur's editor, Narayan Wagle, says the fact that management eventually negotiated a deal with the central leadership of the Maoist party indicates the involvement of the former rebels.

Wagle says the Maoists have expanded and radicalized trade unions, such as the newspaper delivery boys' union, and are now using affiliated workers to put pressure on the media. He says they are also getting help from the former Maoist militia, which has been transformed into the Young Communist League.

"They're backed by the Maoist party. Since the union out here was doing a strike in the complex, outside the complex was full of YCL cadres - YCL means Young Communist League of the Maoists - so we can see that the Maoists backed the strike here," said Wagle.

Wagle says that although journalists are targeted for attacks, the situation reflects a wider breakdown in law and order.

Nepal has more than 20 militant groups of varying sizes, most of them operating in the southern districts known as the Terai.

Journalists in the south receive threats if they criticize the extremists, and also if they refuse to publish news of the militants latest actions.

Several reporters have relocated to avoid the volatile south, after ethnic tensions rose to the surface earlier this year in a series of violent protests and killings.

During the 10-year civil war, which ended with a peace agreement in November last year, there were at least 18 confirmed deaths of journalists. Others were kidnapped and tortured by both sides of the conflict.