Kunda Dixit on Resisting Press Censorship in Nepal

Last February Nepalese King Gyanendra, declaring a state of emergency, seized power from parliament, suspended all press freedoms and imposed government censorship on all national media outlets. Nepalese radio stations could no longer broadcast news, and national newspaper editors had military visitors reading through copy. But in the months that followed, Nepal’s journalists began to fight back. Recently, CJR’s Julia Heming sat down with Kunda Dixit, the founding editor of the English-language weekly Nepali Times and co-publisher of Himal Southasian Magazine, to find out how Nepalese journalists have managed to break out of the silence.

Julia Heming: What is the political situation in Nepal right now, and how is it affecting the national media?

Kunda Dixit: The king took over power on February 1. Six months later the political parties’ activities are still curbed. Although the emergency has been lifted, there is still a lot of pressure on citizen’s rights and on press freedom. There is still a lot of indirect pressure on the media not to write anything critical of the king or in support of restoration of democracy. And this intimidation comes in the form of travel restrictions, a ban on government advertising, phone calls, that sort of thing. And senior editors also being detained briefly or being summoned by the police to explain why they wrote such and such a thing.

JH: What type of information can’t be printed? Is there a list of specific terms?

KD: There is a regulation, it’s not a law. It’s a regulation that came into effect February 7, which lays out very, very strict punishment for anything that is critical of the king’s moves, anything that would be detrimental for the morale of the security forces who are fighting an insurgency, anything that’s against national interest, so on and so forth. It’s a very broad definition, so anything can be construed to be critical, but the punishment is very strict.

So, for a while, you saw the effects of this on the media. Media were being careful, they’re not sticking their necks out. But, you know, six months down the line, what you see now is a lot of defiance against it, despite the regulation. So now there’s also a movement building up within the media to resist the government’s efforts to turn these regulations into a law through a royal ordinance. We don’t have parliament, so it has to be by decree. The decree has gone to the palace for approval. This is why the media in Nepal — and also the legal fraternity — are being very active in trying to resist this.

JH: Would you explain a little bit more about how the media is able to resist the censors?

KD: For the first two weeks there were actual soldiers in the news room with guns, especially in radio stations, TV stations, Internet service providers and the daily newspapers. In the weekly papers, like ours, they didn’t come in uniforms and they didn’t have guns. But they sat there at the news desk and they read through everything, and then they said, you know, “This can’t go, this has to be taken out.” It could be pictures, cartoons, even letters to the editor.

So in the first week we left white holes where they took stuff out, and the week after that they told us that we can’t leave white holes, so we had to use all kinds of imaginative things to fill that space up. So we started writing absurd editorials, or metaphorical stuff, or very indirect satire, and things like that. And especially with the ban on news on radio, the radio stations had been extremely creative in resisting by having simulated radio studios on the street corners where they broadcast news to the street and people stop by to listen. They have been openly defying the ban on news on radio by reading news about the king, you know — the king’s activities, where he went. So you see, now, actually it’s very strange, but fighting for democracy and press freedom seems to be a lot of fun. (Laughs)

JH: Why do you think that the radio stations are more censored than the print media?

Because they go to the public, because of the wide access and the affordability of the radio in a country that’s largely illiterate. Our literacy rate is only 46 percent, so the value and importance of radio is, I think, realized by the regime. They know that through radio a lot of people can be empowered, be alerted and that people could demand their rights. So they ban news on radio, and there’s no such ban on television, and … well, at the moment, newspapers are still coming out, so why radio? I think they’re just scared of the public.

JH: And do you think that since the end of news on radio, the army and the vigilante groups have been able to wreak more havoc because the news sources haven’t been watching them as closely?

KD: Well, the ban on press freedom in general, and especially the ban on news on radio, is actually worse for human rights violations and for activities of vigilante groups and so forth because the news doesn’t get out. … As you know from conflict situations all over the world, press freedom is the light that you can shine whenever there is a violation. If you don’t have that light, rather sinister things go on in the darkness.

JH: Since the press had been operating freely in Nepal since 1992, do you think that younger reporters react differently to this ban, than maybe a more experienced reporter would?

KD: That’s correct. Since 1990, Nepal has had the freest press in the world, until January 31 this year. And on February 1, we became like Burma. So it is a real drastic thing, it wasn’t that we always had press curbs and this was just another dimension of curbs of press freedom. It was totally free, and overnight it became not free at all. For older journalists, who had seen it all before 1990, we were used to it, but for our younger colleagues, even at our paper, they were shocked. They were thoroughly demoralized; they were depressed. They had just started, I guess they had come to take press freedom for granted. They didn’t know any other system, the press had to be free and they took that as a given. And suddenly to have that taken away from them … my younger colleagues, they really didn’t know what was happening. They came around and said, “What do we do now? How much can we write?” So they were flustered.

JH: In your most recent issue of your magazine Himal there was a commentary that was critical of the king and the ruling regime. Have there been any consequences as a result of those writings, or not so much?

KD: We have several publications; Himal is one of them. It’s a monthly regional paper. And we have the Nepali Times, and we have a Nepali language paper. The English press is not under as much scrutiny as the Nepali language press. So if you write the same thing in a Nepali language paper there is a reaction, and this reaction can come as being summoned to the police, or getting a phone call, so at the moment it’s restricted to that, but it could get much worse if this media decree comes into force.

JH: Has the Western media done a good job of letting the world know about this?

KD: No. Nepal has always been a black spot … Nepal has always had a Shangri-La image, you know, up in the mountains, gentle people, great scenery, trekking destination, it’s where the hippies went to find Nirvana. And the Western media has never really gotten out of that [mindset]. It’s as if in the newsrooms in the West nothing wrong could happen in Nepal. Nothing nasty could happen in Nepal. I mean, I worked for Reuters at one point, so I know how the Western media looked at Nepal. It’s a total Shangri-La image. What changed all that was, of course, the Royal Massacre, when our entire royal family was killed at a conference in 2001. So the parachute journalists came in and said, “Wow, there is really something wrong with Nepal.” So that’s when they realized that things were not as it seemed. And of course, they also discovered then that there was an insurgency going on, there were a lot of human rights violations, there was a tremendous disparity in society. So since then I think that the coverage has gotten better, but, as usual, the problem with the Western press is always that it’s episodic coverage. It’s event-oriented, it’s not an attempt to really explain what’s happening. But lately there have been some fairly intelligent, longer articles in magazines in the U.S. and Europe that try to put the whole thing into context.

JH: What does the future hold for journalism in Nepal?

KD: Because we live there and we work there in the media, we can only hope for the best. If you start losing hope, and fatalistically think that things are never going to get better, then what’s the point? So we have to struggle, we have to try to at least restore democracy, not for ourselves, not for the journalists, so much as for the public. The public is now really feeling the lack of news, especially because of the ban on radio. Because they were getting used to that debate, thrashing everything out, phoning the radio station with their views, and now that’s all finished. And they miss that, and I think for the people’s sake, we need to bring back press freedom.

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Julia Heming is a CJR intern.