Nepali Times
Press post mortem

Early in February 2009, a representative of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) visited Janakpur to inquire into the state of the investigation into the murder of Uma Singh. The visit took place following an announcement by the Nepali political authorities that the murder was related to a property dispute, and Uma Singh was killed because she allegedly had the title to a large part of the family's assets, mainly land.

However, the IFJ found that Uma Singh's work as a journalist, in particular her significant investigative reporting on the wrongful expropriation of land during Nepal's decade-long insurgency, was a major factor behind her murder.

On the basis of its inquiries and interviews, the IFJ believes that this element of confusion about the motives for the murder of Uma Singh, though inherent in the situation, is easily dispelled. Property issues and familial rivalries were undoubtedly a part of the reason that Uma Singh was killed. But there is little question that her work as a journalist and the investigative reporting she had done on the expropriation of land in the Tarai was a major reason for her killing.

In her journalism, Uma Singh began to document extensively several instances of land-grabbing by Maoist cadres. With the ceasefire and the transition to a democratic government, there has been considerable public pressure building for returning seized land to prior owners. This is deemed an essential part of the process of national reconciliation in Nepal, until lawful land reforms are instituted. The Maoist-led national government, formally committed to national reconciliation, has issued necessary directives for the return of expropriated land. But it has often proved unable or unwilling to enforce its writ on local cadres.In an article in the Nepali language monthly Sarokar in October 2008, Uma Singh reported: "The Maoists have not returned the seized land in Siraha district even three months after Maoist chairman and Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal directed his party cadres to do so. Some 1,200 bigahas of land captured during the people's war is still under Maoist control."

She followed with a detailed cataloguing of land seizures and an enumeration of the people affected by property expropriation. The intent of her campaigning journalism was clear: to render justice to all people in Siraha and Dhanusha districts in particular and the Tarai region in general who had been dispossessed and displaced on account of land seizures.

In the same article, Uma Singh named a powerful person from the Maoist political hierarchy in the Tarai, now alienated from the party because of tactical and strategic differences. This leader had, she reported, defied central directives from his party and the cabinet and persisted with forcible land expropriation. He was unwilling to adapt to the realities of the ceasefire and the new democratic compact in Nepal.

Seemingly taking his appointment to the key Ministry of Land Reforms as the sanction for unilateral decisions, this individual had been mobilising disadvantaged sections in the Tarai in large numbers to forcibly seize and resettle land. The Land Reforms Minister would not tolerate any opposition, ignoring directives from the Prime Minister and the cabinet that he cease his campaign.

With a number of interviews and first-hand accounts to buttress her reporting, Uma Singh wrote that this political campaign of forcible land seizure was motivated by fairly mundane calculations. Far from altruism, it was in fact extortion.

The motivation for Uma Singh's murder seems to have been her journalism, which consistently took up the issue of restitution of illicit land seizures. Uma Singh was also fearless and outspoken in her reporting on the operations of the numerous armed groups that had sprouted in the Tarai since the end of the insurgency.

The problems that women journalists faced were Uma Singh's special focus and she was, through her commitment and courage, an example for many younger women who chose to enter journalism after the 2006 transition to democracy.

Professional morale (in the media) has been severely dented by Uma Singh's murder. Most women reported intense pressures from their families to give up journalism and settle for relatively low-risk professions such as teaching.

Excerpts from the investigation report were released by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) this week. The IFJ was part of the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission to Nepal 5-8 February.

Full report:

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)