“Communications are still cut off. And the future of the country, people and our journalistic career look glum.” — Radio Free Nepal blog, Feb. 2, 2005
In the Internet Age, powerful rulers have little chance to operate in a media blackout. They can shut the newspapers, the TV stations and even block Web sites and telephone lines. But eventually, news leaks out, an e-mail here, a Web site there and eventually a Weblog fighting for the cause of the repressed.
In Nepal, King Gyandendra took power February 1 from Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, putting ministers under house arrest and immediately censoring and threatening the free press. But a few days later, after phone lines were back up, journalists were getting news out via Weblogs — either anonymously posted or under their own names.
And the news was grim. The army had shut the flourishing FM community radio stations and had put censors on TV broadcasts and inside newspaper newsrooms. The king called for a ban on negative reports on his takeover, and at least six more journalists are still in prison there, including Bishnu Nisthuri, Secretary General of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists. Both Reporters Sans Frontieres and the Committee to Protect Journalists have called on the king to renew press freedoms.
Meanwhile, newspapers that were critical of the king in the past were more circumspect, running editorials about the weather or trees — or even blank editorial pages. As a result of the clampdown, journalists and other media workers have lost jobs, with a photo in the Kantipur Daily newspaper of a newly unemployed journalist strumming an acoustic guitar causing concern from censors.
The journalists who run blogs were less concerned. The Nepalese group blog, United We Blog, quickly ran the photo of the strumming journalist, along with a commentary on the 1,000 radio journalists who had possibly lost their jobs recently.
“This shows the reality of Nepalese journalists,” wrote Gunaraj, news editor for Kantipur Daily, who also writes for United We Blog. “You can’t write what you think [is] news. You have to be cautious projecting the news and views. If the government finds it is against the directives of the rule, you can be punished. It is very much disturbing for the journalist. If the situation [stays] like this, more and more media houses will be closed down and the journalists [will be] out of jobs.”
United We Blog was launched only last October by a group of journalists who write for the Kathmandu Post, Kantipur Daily, and Nepal Weekly. The blog’s co-founder Dinesh Wagle, 26, is a gregarious Kantipur Daily reporter who covers technology issues. His crusade to get Nepalese journalists to blog has made him a leading figure in the nascent Nepalese blogosphere, and United We Blog has gone from a personal forum to a much more politically charged outlet. On February 22, the blog devoted the entire day to protest two jailed Iranian bloggers, one of whom was recently sentenced to a 14-year prison term.
“We are just blogging whatever we think bloggable on a variety of topics,” Wagle told me via e-mail. “Only since the Feb. 1 Royal Takeover (well, after the resumption of Internet services on Feb. 8) I started blogging very much about political situation in the country. Only on Feb. 8, I came to know the importance of this site … a place to express myself. Yes, there are some restrictions in expression after the emergency rules were imposed in the country following Royal Takeover. But we will try to write as much as we can. … We want our rights to freedom of expression and democracy back. I hope the king will do that soon.”
A complex political situation
To outsiders, the Royal Takeover looks like a cut-and-dried case of a tyrannical power grab. But the situation is much more complex. The Himalayan nation of Nepal, the 12th poorest nation in the world, has lived through a series of monarchs and maharajahs for the past two centuries. The country has felt the pull of its powerful neighbors, China and India, while it has been pulled apart by Maoist insurgents who roam the countryside and a fragile multiparty democracy that ended with King Gyandendra’s Royal Takeover.
The king himself ascended to the throne in 2001 after a bloody Royal Massacre in 2001, when a drunken Crown Prince Dipendra killed the king and Queen of Nepal and seven other royals before he killed himself. Now the people of Nepal are left with Gyandendra’s iron-fisted rule and the Maoist rebels who have shut down transportation in a strike outside the capital of Kathmandu. The king promised to end the insurgency and restore democracy within three years. (Read a BBC primer on Nepal’s current crisis here, and a timeline of Nepal’s political history here.)
India has cut off military aid to Nepal, and the European Union and United States denounced the king’s takeover — though the U.S. is wary of the Maoists taking power and has provided Nepal with military aid in the past. Blogger/journalist Wagle says he’s upset that the democratic movement in Nepal had failed over the past 15 years, at one point having 11 different formations of government rule in 11 years.
“I am very much ashamed to say that all governments of the last decade and a half couldn’t deliver as per people’s expectations,” Wagle said. “That doesn’t mean governments of the pre-1990 democratic movement were competent and clean either. They were even more corrupted and we had no freedom. People expected a lot from elected governments of post-1990 movement. Opposition parties couldn’t play the constructive role in the parliament, ruling parties couldn’t rule properly. In the mean time, Maoists started their bloody People’s War in 1996 and Nepal was pushed toward being a failed state.”
Wagle says that Nepalese journalists are stuck in the middle, not allowed to report negatively about the king or the Maoists.
“We, the press, are surviving in a crossfire,” he said. “We can’t speak or write against Maoists as well. If we do so, we will be targeted. Several reporters have been assassinated in the last few years because they wrote against Maoists. Now, we can’t write against the spirit of the Royal Proclamation. If we do so, we will be jailed.”
Meanwhile, another Nepalese journalist started the Radio Free Nepal (RFN) blog, with the express intent of telling the truth about what was going on in Nepal. But because of the king’s threat of jail for negative reports, the blogger remains anonymous and posts under the pseudonym “Kathmandu.”
“I started the blog to advocate for the return of democracy,” the blogger told me via e-mail. “As a journalist, and a Nepali, it is a grave concern for me that the king has taken the direct power, dismissing the government and democracy and imposing censorship on the media. My primary aim with Radio Free Nepal is to get the information to the world about Nepal and to tell them that we are not happy with what’s going on and we want democracy back.”
Thanks to the Internet, the blogger is able to get uncensored news out to the world, whether it’s links to Western stories on Nepal or first-hand accounts of army censors on the premises of media outlets in Kathmandu.
“Even when phones and Internet were cut off in Nepal, we used the Internet at embassies and diplomatic missions to communicate with the world,” the blogger said. “I am communicating with a few of my journalist friends asking them to write about Nepal almost everyday to get the word out. … For me, the Internet is not only a medium to spread the word and advocate for democracy but also a means of encouragement in my fight for democracy.”
Bloggers in danger?
Bloggers such as The Media Drop’s Tom Biro and BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis have picked up on Radio Free Nepal and linked to it, as the blog has started to post photos of the Nepalese military stationed around the capital. But are the Nepalese bloggers putting themselves in danger by putting negative news on their blogs and calling for foreign media attention?
The Radio Free Nepal blogger says the government would block the site if it finds out about it, but that bloggers are currently enjoying more freedom of expression because of the lack of IT knowledge by government officials. Still, the blogger knows that the punishment could be harsh if the government can track down him or her.
“Since they are summoning newspaper editors for publishing something that [isn’t] even against the king, I would certainly face something worse than summoning,” the blogger said. “I am sure I would be arrested for going against the ‘Spirit of Royal Proclamation.'”
Wagle, for one, is not deterred by the threat of arrest. He says the anonymous blog posts at Radio Free Nepal aren’t as credible as people putting names on their work.
“I don’t think posting anonymously will be that useful and effective,” Wagle said. “Man, do whatever you like with your identity revealed. Why are you afraid of jail? I am not, really. I am happy to go to jail if they want to put me there just because of my blogs.”
Bob Zelnick, former ABC News correspondent and journalism school chairman and professor at Boston University, thinks the bloggers could be playing with fire.
“The bloggers presented accounts of political heavy-handedness, tight control of anything published and implied praise for the new communications technology, without which all or most of the situation in Nepal would have happened out of sight of the rest of the world,” Zelnick told me via e-mail. “The tenor of many accounts suggests the bloggers may feel their electronic communications are more secure than they in fact are, raising the possibility of future targeted crackdowns.”
Already, the bloggers say that sites such as NepaliPost.com and NewsLookMag.com have been blocked by the king.
What will happen next is anyone’s guess. But Wagle notes that the Internet and blogging are new phenomena in Nepal, with only 300,000 Net users out of a population of 25 million.
Getting foreign media attention
The point of all this blogging — in English — is to bring the plight of the Nepalese to the Western media’s attention, which could goad other countries to pressure the king to back down. So far, the news has been spotty, with the media’s attention focused more on Iraq and other issues.
Kristin Jones is a research associate of the Asian Program at the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). She noted that Nepal relies heavily on international aid and tourism — both of which could be changed by international public opinion.
“Western journalists and bloggers can do a lot for journalists in Nepal simply by publicizing their problems,” Jones told me via e-mail. “The crisis in Nepal has gotten very little press coverage, in part because it is so difficult to report on what’s going on there. But Western journalists are not subject to the same rules of censorship the local press is, and can cover things the local press cannot. Part of the problem is also lack of interest outside of Nepal, and bloggers are expert at stirring interest.”
Press freedom group Reporters Sans Frontieres has run a series of articles on the crackdown in Nepal, and the CPJ recently met with the Nepalese ambassador to the U.S. in an appeal for threatened journalists. Jones said the Nepalese ambassador was “very polite and very firm” in defending the king’s moves.
“According to all the statements the king has made, the curbs on press freedom are intended to be a temporary measure during the state of emergency,” Jones said. “But no one knows how long the assault is going to last, or what damage may be done to the press in the meantime. Several journalists have been imprisoned during the last few weeks; we don’t have information on whether they have been mistreated by security forces. Perhaps hundreds of journalists have lost their jobs, and hundreds more face layoffs.”
Jones said the advent of Internet reports and blogs in Nepal was relatively new compared to China and Vietnam, where it has been more commonplace as a way around censorship. She was unsure what might happen to the outspoken bloggers, as there has never been an Internet-related crackdown in Nepal before.
But Jones did say that the Nepalese security forces have had experience blocking Maoist sites in the past and definitely understand the power of the Net.
“While he’s not a blogger, Bishnu Nisthuri, who is the General Secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists and who has been in the custody of security forces since the early days of the coup, may have been targeted for a statement distributed via e-mail and the Internet in which he condemned the king’s actions,” she said. “The statement also protested the government’s going after the FNJ President Tara Nath Dahal for writing a similar statement, also distributed widely via e-mail and Internet.”
The Indian media critic Pradyuman Maheshwari, who writes the Mediaah! blog, told me that it’s critical the United Nations starts to take communication freedom more seriously and use sanctions against countries that crack down on freedom of press and expression.
“It is ironic that when we have an increasing number of ways in which people can communicate freely, and more importantly be heard, there is also a simultaneous rise in intolerance towards the media,” Maheshwari said via e-mail. “Regrettably, very few countries respect the importance of free speech.”
In Their Own Words
A sampling of thoughts from Nepalese bloggers
On the king’s directive:
“The first thing that his ministry did today was issuance of a directive prohibiting any articles, news, view, even personal view against the theme of [Royal] Proclamation for the next six months. … What will we do without the right to expression, information and with the censorship? I am curious about what the king might have been thinking about the Internet. It can not be blocked for long and if it’s open there is no meaning of blocking foreign newspaper and channels in Nepal. And all the things will be out on the Internet through e-mails. It’s very difficult to live without communication.” — Radio Free Nepal blog posting, Feb. 2
On media censorship at Kantipur TV:
“We had aired international news, which had it that the Marxist guerrillas had killed 14 Colombian marines, in Colombia. We ran the news in three of our bulletins, starting in the morning. The army major [on the premises to censor news], very polite in his conversations, requested to remove that news as well. The reason: that could be detrimental to our security forces’ morale. The word ‘communist’ had its effect. The army men stayed within the premises for three days and the screening went on a regular basis. One of our bulletins had to be aired two minutes late, because the major had not finished reading the news then. On the third evening, the army left. But before leaving, they cautioned us to follow the guidelines issued by the government while disseminating news. And we have been following that ever since.” — Radio Free Nepal blog posting
On the BBC:
“The irony is that, the FM station (103 megahertz) that the BBC had hired from state-owned Radio Nepal since last October still airs 24-hours broadcast of BBC World Service. In the same station, the 30-minutes-long BBC Nepali Service program used to be broadcast live at 1500 GMT, and a 15-minute segment live at 1700 GMT. Both programs are not being relayed now on that FM station. Still, the content of BBC World Service is not censored. They are airing balanced news that authorities wouldn’t have liked if the language were in Nepali. They think very few people know English and that’s fine with people like me. In fact, BBC WS was the only medium for me in those days of incommunicado immediately after the Royal Takeover.” — Dinesh Wagle
On violence after the takeover:
“The worst news of the day is yet to be fully confirmed. The BBC Radio reported that the security personnel entered the hostel of the Prithivi Narayan Multiple Campus in Pokhara on Tuesday night after the students initiated a protest rally and sounds of shooting were heard. Although the BBC said it was not clear what types of bullets were used, it said that more than 250 were injured and arrested. Later, I heard a report that at least 15 have been shot dead. And, all the newspapers and FM stations outside the Valley have been forced to close down. It appears that the king wants no media at all.” — Radio Free Nepal blog posting, Feb. 4
On his blog writing:
“Nepal is in state of emergency after the Royal Takeover. So, officially, our rights of expression and civil liberties have been curtailed. I hope this situation doesn’t last longer. So, as a Nepali citizen, I have to respect the law of the land. I don’t think I have blogged anything that goes against the ‘spirit of the Royal Takeover.’ I have demanded the restoration of democracy that the king has already promised in his Proclamation.” — Dinesh Wagle
On the press taking more chances:
“The Nepali press, especially dailies who were very much afraid during the early days of the king’s rule, are now opening up. They are not only mentioning curtailed freedom more often but also writing about political parties meeting and publishing photos of arrests in protest rallies. This is because there is no way the media can be kept quiet – they will find one way or another to defy the directives. Since there are no military officials doing the final censorship on the pages as [they were] for the first two days, newspapers are publishing stories which they believe they can defend in front of officials if summoned.” — Radio Free Nepal blogger in OJR interview
On getting journalists to blog:
“I show my blogs to my colleagues at Kantipur Daily. They like them. But the sad thing is that they are not still encouraged to join the fray. Oh my 18-year-old brother Email Sharma (yes, his name is Email) reads my blogs whenever he finds time (and money of course) to go to a cyber cafe. After I wrote an article about blogging (which appeared as the lead op-ed piece in Kantipur), some people actually went to the site and they said that I was doing great. I don’t think I need any encouragement to blog, but of course, comments from various parts of the world energize me.” — Dinesh Wagle