(New York) - Nepalese authorities should promptly and impartially investigate and prosecute alleged ruling party activists responsible for an attack on journalists on December 21, 2008, Human Rights Watch said today.
The assailants had known ties to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) (CPN-M), the largest party in Nepal's coalition government and the party of Prime Minister Pushpa Kumal Dahal, the former rebel leader known as Prachanda. Prachanda has announced an investigation, but it has yet to begin.
"This ugly attack on journalists by people linked to Prime Minister Prachanda's party is a very dangerous development," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government's response is a major test of the prime minister's commitment to media freedom and the rule of law. No one has been held accountable for the repeated attacks on the media in 2008."
Human Rights Watch called on Prime Minister Prachanda to take a clear public stand on behalf of media freedom in Nepal and to ensure a prompt and impartial investigation leading to prosecutions. Prachanda has denied his party had any role in the attack, blaming "immoral agents" who had "infiltrated" the CPN-M.
On December 21, 2008, activists of two trade unions affiliated with the CPN-M - the All Nepal Communications, Printing and Publication Workers' Union and All Nepal Hotel and Restaurant Workers' Union - attacked the office of Himalmedia in Lalitpur. About a dozen people were wounded in the attack, including the Himalmedia head, Ashutosh Tiwari, and Kunda Dixit, the editor of its weekly English-language magazine, Nepali Times. The attack appears to have been a response to an article in the Nepali news fortnightly Himal Khabar Patrika, that criticized steps taken by Maoist trade unions in shutting down industries.
There have been a number of other recent attacks on journalists and media organizations. On November 16, a group of unknown assailants attacked the office of the Himal Khabar Patrika in Kathmandu and burned nearly 5,000 copies of the magazine. On October 25, stone-throwing assailants on motorbikes attacked a van carrying Tiwari.
On October 20, several people attacked the office of the local Terai Times newspaper following publication of a news article suggesting that the CPN-M's Young Communist League was providing protection for prostitution. Kamal Sah, a journalist, and Jaya Kumar Chaudhari, a computer operator, were assaulted, and the group damaged and stole equipment.
On November 17, unidentified men assaulted Shiv Devkota, the editor of the local weekly Nuwakot Jagaran, after he spoke on behalf of the Nepal Press Union at a Congress Party meeting in the central district of Nuwakot.
Journalists are particularly vulnerable in the southern Terai region, where armed groups remain active and policing is largely absent. On October 8, Jagat Prasad Joshi, editor of the Maoist Nepali-language daily newspaper Janadisha and Kailali district chief of the CPN-M-aligned Revolutionary Journalists Association, disappeared. After a 52-day search, the remains of a body along with Joshi's identity card, driver's license, and mobile phone were recovered at the Godavari riverbed in the Kailali Chaukidada Mahila Community Forest. The Nepalese government formed a three-member panel to investigate the death, but no action has yet been taken.
The media played a leading role in restoring democracy in Nepal, but they have come under renewed attack by various groups. Since 2007, four journalists have been killed in Nepal and an increasing number of media workers have been threatened, abducted, and physically attacked. For example, in 2007 CPN-M members abducted and killed Birendra Shah, a journalist, in the Bara district in southern Nepal. Another journalist, Prakash Singh Thakuri of the daily Aajako Samachar, has been missing since July 2007, when he was kidnapped by a group claiming to be from the CPN-M.
"Journalism should not be a dangerous profession, but it is in today's Nepal," said Adams. "Until the people responsible for ordering and carrying out these attacks are brought to justice, they will continue."
Prachanda and the CPN-M have a poor record on media freedom. During Nepal's decade-long civil war, Maoist forces under Prachanda were responsible for numerous attacks on journalists deemed to be in opposition to their cause.
On May 30, before he became prime minister, Prachanda issued a public warning to journalists while addressing a mass meeting in Kathmandu, reportedly saying: "Now we will no longer tolerate criticism as we have already been elected by the people."
"Nepal has a long history of gagging critical media," said Adams. "Ironically, now the CPN-M is replicating the same model of state repression it stood against in overthrowing the monarchy. The CPN-M urgently needs to transform itself from a party that is willing to use violence to achieve political ends, and fulfill the commitments to peaceful politics it has repeatedly made in agreements since 2005."
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