Nepali Times Asian Paints
Decisive Decade
Press for freedom



BILASH RAI

Press freedom is an absolute. One can't be 'partly free'. It has become fashionable these days for the government to re-invent 'Asian values' of press freedom and democracy: the argument that individual and political rights are somehow less important than social, economic and cultural rights. It's the old debate all over again, and the Maoist-led government is resurrecting a class-based definition of rights to stifle criticism in the press.

Unfortunately, we find the UN's human rights wallahs and bilaterals, who would never agree to any fetters on the press in their own countries, going along with this. It's like saying: "Sorry about the chains, but you're not fully ready for freedom yet."

Our post-conflict situation is characterised by a collapse of the rule of law and an epidemic of impunity. Things will get worse because the state is not serious about protecting human rights, and the NHRC has limited capacity and commitment. The UN's OHCHR is under pressure to go along because it wants to extend its mandate. In fact, it should remember why Nepal's human rights activists lobbied hard to bring it here in 2005 in the first place: to augment independent monitoring. That is needed more than ever when we have a state actor that is intolerant of dissent.

The war may be over, but the behaviour of the Maoists in the avatar of their militant wings are still getting away with violence and intimidation. Murderers walk around in the sanctuary of UNMIN-supervised camps. Not a single killer of journalists in the past three years has been caught and tried. The Maoist leadership lacks understanding about democracy and press freedom at a philosophical level. Freedom in the Maoist lexicon is the freedom to blindly support the party agenda. Or else. Anyone who doesn't agree is automatically labelled 'feudal', 'lackey', or 'running dog reactionary class enemy'.

After using ham-handed methods in the past year to vandalise media offices and attack journalists, the Maoists are getting slightly more sophisticated: that is, if the prime minister publicly calling journalists 'smugglers' can be called sophistication. Still, the strategy is now to put on the squeeze indirectly.

Journalists across the country admit that it is more difficult to report now than during the war. Every gang with a gun now feels it can do what the Maoists do. From the eastern hills to the Madhes and even in Kathmandu, journalists are self-censoring because of the fear of retribution from ethnic militants, criminal gangs and the Maoists. Each is bent upon outdoing the other in intimidating the media. The state is unable and unwilling to go after the perpetrators because the party leading the government feels it indirectly benefits from a cowed-down media.

Press Freedom Day is being marked on 3 May, 2009 in Kathmandu to draw the attention of South Asian governments to their patchy record in protecting media independence. It gives us no satisfaction that there are countries in the region where journalists have it worse than us.



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