Nepal: Elections marred by many media freedom violations

After major violations of press freedom during a
series of elections held in Nepal from May until earlier this month, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls for the release of journalists still in prison and urges the newly-elected authorities to ensure that their priorities include respect for media freedom.

Nepal had not had proper elections for nearly 20 years so 2017's staggered elections for 753 local councils, seven provincial assemblies and a national parliament made it a crucial year for this renascent democracy, but one marred by many violations of media freedom including arrests of journalists.

The latest victims include Prakash Dumre of Garjan Post Weekly, who was arrested by police without any warrant being shown on 21 November, five days before the first stage of the parliamentary elections. At least eight other journalists were arrested during the week of 13 to 20 November. Some were quickly released, re-arrested then released again.

Dumre was freed on 17 December. Dipesh Shahi of Madhyanha Daily, who was released a week ago, is currently being treated in hospital for the injuries he sustained when tortured during the 24 days he was held. Other journalists, such as Sudarshan Raj Pandey of Utthan Weekly, are still held.

"We demand the immediate release of journalists who have been imprisoned without an arrest warrant.," said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF's Asia-Pacific desk. "The ten or so journalists arrested during the local elections in the spring bring the total number of reporters arrested while covering this year's elections to at least 20.

"The security concerns cited by the interior ministry cannot suffice to justify arrests of journalists recognized as such by their colleagues. Now that the elections are over, the new government must give concrete evidence of its determination to defend media freedom."


Physical attacks

As well as police intimidation, several journalists have been the victims of physical attacks. During the first round of the parliamentary elections on 25 November, onlinekhabar news website reporter Dinesh Thapa was attacked in his home of a group of individuals led by the head of the local branch of the then ruling Nepali Congress party.

A week before that, Naveen Lamichhane, a reporter working inter alia for the National News Agency and Janata Television, was roughed up by a group of activists while covering a political rally in the north-central city of Manang. In all, around 15 journalists have been physically attacked or manhandled, above all by policemen, while covering the elections.


Death threats

These direct acts of intimidation have been accompanied by an increase in threats, including harassment by officials, letters and phone calls. They peaked with a death threat in May against women reporters by a certain Basant Karki in a Facebook post from Canada that referred to Nepali woman journalist Uma Singh's murder in 2009.

Carrying a press ID and "wearing spectacles and sari" do not prove you are a real journalist, Karki said in his post about female reporters covering the local elections. He added: "Be aware otherwise, fate of journalist Uma Singh may repeat." The post was above all targeted at Sushma Paudel, a woman reporter covering the local elections in the central city of Pokhara for Adarsha Samaj Daily.


Banned journalists

Many journalists were also barred from voting stations. They include Janata Television reporter Bidhyananda Ram, who was denied access to a voting station in the southeastern district of Saptari during the provincial elections in September. The chief election officer grabbed his camera, smashed it to the ground and said journalists did not have the right to cover election-related activities. Journalists were prevented from working in at least seven other voting stations.

All of these incidents jeopardize the consolidation of democracy in a country that has endured a civil war and a long period of political unrest in the past 20 years. With the new stability resulting from these elections, the next national government and provincial authorities will no longer be able to claim that they cannot guarantee press freedom.

RSF therefore insists on respect for Nepal's 2015 constitution, which proclaims "complete press freedom" in its preamble.

Nepal is ranked 100th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2017 World Press Freedom Index.