Nepali Times
Guest Column
Getting away with murder


DHANGADI?On the day after Uma Singh was killed, Home Minister Bamdev Gautam came to this far-western Tarai town with the heads of the APF and Nepal Police. He assured everyone he would go after attackers of the media one by one.

Gautam coming to Dhangadi when a journalist was brutally murdered in Janakpur was like sending the fire brigade to the west when the fire is in the east. He said he'd nab the murderers one by one, but journalists are being killed one by one.

Things were never this bad for the Nepali media: not in the conflict years, not even during the royal emergency when journalists were randomly detained, kept in solitary confinement and tortured.

Today, while journalists are being brutally murdered the state is perpetuating impunity by not taking action, and in some cases garlanding the attackers. And when things get really difficult, the government's standard response is to set up a commission, pad it up with its own sympathisers and hope that the problem will just fade away.

When Himalmedia was attacked, Prime Minsiter Dahal told a public meeting in Butwal that he didn't understand what the big fuss was about because "no one was killed". He went on to ask why there wasn't similar outrage when Dhangadi journalist JP Joshi was killed two months previously.

Of course there was an outrage. Even though Joshi was a district committee member of the Maoists, and there were suspicions that Maoists themselves were behind the killing, the Federation of Nepali Journalists launched protests nationwide.

It is this sort of insensitivity and such irresponsible comments that has got the government into hot water over subsequent attacks on media. They feed the perception that the Maoist party has never been serious about press freedom, and that it only pays lip service to it. How can you expect answers and justice from a government that seems so oblivious to the threats to the press?

The media fraternity doesn't care what political persuasion a colleague who is harassed or killed belongs to. Journalists want to cover the news, not become the news themselves. When Uma Singh was killed, it hurt journalists in western Nepal. When JP Joshi was killed, reporters in Jhapa were outraged.

Only if the journalists' right to life is protected, does it make any sense to protect their right to free expression. Only if the media is free to fulfill the people's right to know without threats or hindrance will democracy function as it should.

So far, not even a single murderer of a journalist has been prosecuted. It is this impunity that proves to the enemies of press freedom that they can literally get away with murder. And let's not forget that it's not just the assassins of journalists like Birendra Sah who are scot free, even the killers of Kathmandu businessman Ram Hari Joshi are not just at large but have been installed as members of the Maoist central committee. What kind of a message does this send to the citizenry when criminals are not just let free unprosecuted but are rewarded instead?

The irony of all this, of course, is that during the conflict the media had years gone out of its way to be objective. When the media struggled against the king's dictatorship to safeguard press freedom, it lavished coverage
and interviews of underground Maoist leaders.

The media is the medium through which public debate takes place. It is our duty to present dissenting points of view, even if they are views held by the enemies of press freedom. The media doesn't want journalists to be declared martyrs, they don't want any more toothless commissions of inquiry, they just want the perpetrators of murder caught and tried. Is that too much to ask?

Dirgharaj Upadhyay is the chairman of the Kailali Chapter of the Federation of Nepali Journalists.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)