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Nepali Journalists Use Cyberspace to Fight for Democracy

In Nepal, a group of journalists is using the Internet to sidestep tight censorship imposed after King Gyanendra took power and proclaimed an emergency last month. Several outspoken Web pages have sprung up in the tiny Himalayan country where civil liberties including freedom of expression have been suspended.

Access the Web site of Radio Free Nepal (, and you can read an interview with an arrested opposition leader, or news about pro-democracy protests held in the country.

This is the kind of news no longer carried by Nepal's usually vibrant mainstream media.

On February 1, King Gyanendra seized power, and imposed strict censorship, banning criticism of his action, which he said was aimed at ending a communist rebellion in the country.

A group of journalists started the Radio Free Nepal Web site a week after the king ousted the former cabinet and took power. Around the same time, the Web log "United We Blog" began carrying political stories. It has run articles about an anti-monarchy student demonstration, on an editor being questioned by authorities, and on communist rebels extorting money from villagers.

These Web logs, or blogs as they are called, are rapidly becoming a popular source of news and information in Nepal.

A Nepalese journalist, Yuvraj Ghimre, says it was logical for journalists to tap new technology to get the news across.

"But this is only natural when there is some kind of restriction, people want free flow of their views and they do find ways to express them," he added. "It is just natural and [a] legitimate way of exercising the right to expression."

Radio Free Nepal appeals to the world not to forget the tiny country. The journalist running it says the desire for democracy and free expression prompted him to start the site. But he stays anonymous, fearing action by authorities.

He has good reason to be afraid. In recent weeks, the administration has done much to intimidate the media. Editors have been summoned to police stations, and several journalists have been arrested. Military officials have been posted at media offices to review material before it is published. Radio stations have been ordered to carry only entertainment material.

Vincent Brossel with the media advocacy group Reporters Without Borders in Paris says frustrated Nepalese journalists appear to have taken a cue from other countries where the media face severe restrictions.

"We saw in all the country like Iran or China that Web loggers have been very involved in this fight for more freedom of expression…. In Nepal it is a new thing, but it will be a real opportunity for leading Nepali journalists to prove they are committed to press freedom and they want to express what they are seeing in their country," explained Mr. Brossel.

Mr. Brossel says, however, the impact of these Web sites within the country might be limited because very few people have access to computers or know English.

But he says they make a valuable contribution, and are being widely quoted both inside and outside the country as a source of uncensored information. Their articles have been picked up by scores of other similar sites around the world. The hits at "United We

Blog" rose to more than 80,000 in March from 13,000 in January.

In recent weeks, authorities have promised to allow the news media more freedom. But rights groups say that has not happened so far. After a visit to Nepal in early March, the secretary general of the International Commission of Jurists, Nicholas Howen, said the media faces wide harassment. He described how authorities dealt with the editor of a popular weekly publication, Surya Thapa of Budhabar, for printing an article on five political parties uniting to fight the king.

"Because of this article … he is now under investigation for a criminal offense, [an] intelligence agent is stationed permanently outside his office, at least one edition has not been able to be printed, wide spaces appear in other editions where there has been censorship of key parts of what he wants to publish," he said.

Cyberspace has also come under scrutiny, and Nepal's government has blocked several Web sites, including those of the communist rebels.

But so far the Web logs have escaped the attention of authorities. Journalists running the blogs hope their luck will continue because the government is relatively new to the Internet, and does not have the kind of high-technology surveillance seen in other countries that restrict the media.