Minister of Information and Communication Jayprakash Prasad Gupta spoke to Nepali Times this week on how the emergency affects media freedom, the progress of the war against the Maoists and external assistance for military hardware and resources. Excerpts:
How is the military campaign going?
In the beginning we had problems because the Maoists attacked unexpectedly and we faced difficulties reaching the affected areas swiftly. Because of the topography, our only way to get there was by air. Now the army and armed police have reached most of the worst affected areas, ground operations have begun and the Maoists have been cordoned off. The army is doing massive search operations on the ground. We had to wait for some time to begin this. The progress has been encouraging.
Can you disclose the size of the security forces engaged?
No, I cannot tell you that.
Transport and logistics seem to be the main hurdle. Can you confirm that the government has requested India and the United States for help in this regard?
There was a need for more helicopters even before we declared a state of emergency. The army has been trying to acquire helicopters for some time now, and the purchase procedure was public. Now that the emergency is in force, we are trying to expedite that. Reports that we are getting arms and helicopters from India or the United States are not true. At this point, what we really need is the air transport capacity for forward deployment of security forces, because the Maoists have been most successful with ambushes along roads leading to their strongholds. Ambushes and booby traps that take advantage of the topography are their major operational strategy, and that has increased the risk to our security forces. This is why we need greater air-lift capacity.
So are we buying helicopters, or requesting grant aid?
We have made no requests, but we have been discussing possible purchase.
Are there plans to purchase from India?
To acquire the aircraft quickly, we may need to consider who can supply the equipment fast, and how can the purchase be done within our regulations and guidelines.
Wouldn't it be more appropriate to seek aid for military hardware from governments who would be more than willing to extend such help?
There are several options. We are now reviewing the budget because we have a very unexpected situation at hand. We feel that the sudden rise in security expenditures may require a review of the budget, and that could affect some development activities. We will seek the support of friendly countries committed to democracy, and who are worried about our stability and sovereignty. We are also thinking about holding discussions with donors to seek support for development activities that could suffer as a result of the diversion of resources for security.
Have some rounds of talks been held already?
We have been explaining the situation to the donors, telling them that the situation is not very good. We have limited resources, and the security expenses can affect development, and lead to imbalance and disparities. We need donor help with logistics, in whatever form, to manage the present crisis. We are holding discussions with them, and have received some positive assurances. Many are sympathetic about our problems.
In a sense this is also an information war. But don't you think that curbing the press is counterproductive?
I want to clarify some things here. The government has given some instructions to the media but we've said we will also increase information flow and keep the media informed of the operations, even provide them access to the frontline. We're mainly concerned about one thing: that the point of view of the terrorists and reports that would justify their actions be restricted. Besides, we have told the media they can report on operations by visiting the field but they should coordinate first with the security authorities. The government is also trying to see how it can conduct media visits in a coordinated manner. So far that has been difficult because of logistics.
After the attack at the army base in Ghorahi the press was reporting responsibly and was generally supportive of the government. Why, then, did you feel it necessary to impose restrictions?
We have not censored the press. We have only given directives asking them to be careful about venting the point of view of terrorists-who for some years have managed to gain a firm hold in the Nepali press and had managed to get them to publish reports almost everyday justifying their activities.
What about the circular issued by the Royal Nepal Army asking the press not to print any operational information without its approval?
The army's concern is about verifying news and reports on its campaign, the Home Ministry has done the same. In a way they have tried to be proactive by saying that if there is something you're writing about the operations, we will help you verify and confirm the reports.
But how can you win the hearts and minds of the public by preventing the press from writing what is really happening?
The role of the press is different now because it is an emergency. The right to information has had to be temporarily restricted. But you have to realise that when things were normal, the government had no restrictions on the press. And the press helped expose many things that the Maoists stood for. Even today, the press has been exposing the activities of the Maoists, we have no problems with that. But justifying what they have been doing, glorifying an attack on a police post, for example, or attacking the army barracks, or saying we will now take on the monarchy-that is what we are concerned about.
But won't such partial information rules hurt the credibility of the media?
It has only been a week since the emergency was declared. Our security forces had to get into operations immediately, and because of that we were unable to develop a mechanism for the smooth flow of information. Our priority now is to inform the Nepali public on what is going on, for that we have increased news bulletins on radio and television. I myself have briefed the press twice in seven days and the prime minister has also met the press. The Ministry of Defence and the Ministry for Home Affairs are also issuing statements on the operations almost daily. However, we have not been able to organise more sophisticated press briefings, which we hope to begin this week. There are practical problems both in the collection of information and also in its dissemination. Now that the operations against the Maoists have begun on the ground, we will have a better idea of their casualties. So far the campaign has been conducted from the air, and because of difficult terrain we could not get enough information out.
You may increase the number of briefings, but how about the content. Will that be more credible?
We never had to deal with this type of a situation in the country before and so we didn't have a mechanism for disseminating information. I must also admit we don't have the professionalism needed to manage information flow in such times. We understand that the press does not get an opportunity to seek clarification when it has to rely solely on official press statements, that is why we are changing the system to have a mechanism that would allow two-way interaction. That can help improve the credibility of the briefings.
Do you think the Nepali press is being too tame?
I think this situation was also very unexpected for the press. Maybe it also had no idea how it should handle itself during such a time. The government does not want to exert total control over the press, it just wants journalists to be careful about certain things. For example, those reports that will help the operation and those that would prevent the morale of those in the operations from sagging are okay. We've been victims of confusion in the past also and we don't want a repeat of that, especially because of incomplete information. And even after emergency, our constitution allows all institutions such as the judiciary and parliament to remain functional. And all of them will be monitoring the emergency to prevent misuse of its provisions. For example the Supreme Court, despite the suspension of some articles on civil liberties, is still the agency that will monitor the legality of the government's actions under the new ordinance. The court has full freedom to do that. The press can also keep watch, and help ensure that there are no atrocities during the emergency and prevent innocent people from being affected. The government will always welcome such a role.
What is the role of the Royal Nepal Army in providing information?
During the emergency, all security agencies are deployed under the army's command. So the armed police, the civil police and other security agencies are all under it. The government wants information on the operations to come from one window, but has not barred the media from going and collecting the information on its own. The government has also set up the institutional mechanism to get the Royal Nepal Army's information on security operations to the public every day. All information comes to the government, which verifies it and then makes it public. We will make the process smoother.
The Royal Nepal Army has not dealt with an internal situation like this before. What makes the government confident that the military can handle the propaganda end of the battle?
We are talking about coordination here. The army is coordinating the work of security agencies. On the propaganda war, I believe that the best strategy for us would be to allow the flow of correct information, not stop it. We are not cooking up stories to glorify only our action, what we are focusing on is communicating facts.
So is the civilian government in charge of news flow?
That is what I am trying to clarify. The army is in the best position to inform us on the operational level facts. It provides us information on the status of the military campaign. That information is made public by the Ministries of Defence and Home. So let us be clear: the information is not coming directly from the army.
The press should not be confused about the circular sent out by the Royal Nepal Army. What the army has said is that it is undertaking the operation, and is willing to help the press verify operational level facts before getting them out. It is a proactive role. Generally, people take such notices as control. But I believe that if it is willing and ready to help verify facts, maybe that is the right thing to do.
What if the media cannot, or will not, take up the offer?
If people don't take their support and verify facts, then wrong information could be disseminated.
What if you find media not abiding by your restrictions?
So far, we have not taken action against any media. We think that the directives are not being implemented fully in many places, but we have refrained from harsh measures. We are only drawing the notice of the concerned media, because we know we will need to have the support of the national media in this campaign. We don't view the press as supporters of the terrorists, but see them as partners of the state in the campaign it is now undertaking. It the past eight days, we have not sought written explanation from any media. Perhaps we are the only country in the world which is so flexible during a time of national emergency. We have arrested some people who were using press cards to aid terrorists. Besides that, the security forces have not taken actions against any journalists or the media.
Do's and Don'ts for Media
Matters that cannot be published or broadcast:
a. That which is likely to generate contempt or disrespect towards His Majesty, or any other members of the royal family, or that which lowers the image of His Majesty.
b. That which endangers the sovereignty and unity of the nation
c. That which may negatively effect the security, peace and administration of the Kingdom of Nepal
d. That which will create enmity between different castes, tribes, religion, sector, community or that which will incite communal tension
e. That which will hit the good behaviour, moral, and social standing of the common people,
f. That which is against the constitution of the Kingdom of Nepal 2047
g. News that insult the standings of multi-party democracy
h. That which will harm the national identity, bring about social breakdown, spread terrorism, and fear
i. News that will demoralise the Royal Nepal Army, the Nepal Police, and civil servants, spread negative feelings, and which will damage their prestige
j. News that aid Maoists terrorists, groups, or that which will upgrade their morale
k. Matters that aim to use violent means to remove the elected government
l. Matters that tend to cause unnatural fear and terror among the common people
m. Matters that demean, disregard, disrespect or undervalue any race, language, religion, and culture
Matters that can be published or broadcast
a. News that detail the criminal activities of Maoist terrorists without encouraging them
b. News that mention the bravery and victories of the Royal Nepal Army, the police and civil servants
c. Official news received from His Majesty's Government and other government means