16-22 May 2014 #707

Maiming the messenger

Democratic regimes with undemocratic institutions can stifle press freedom
Anurag Acharya
In Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Bhutan, regimes flaunting democracy have stifled the free press by maiming the messengers.

During the final years of the armed conflict, Nepali journalists were also under similar threat. Between 2001 to 2006, at least 17 journalists were killed by Nepal’s security forces, while nine others were killed by the Maoists.

Nepal then was among the most dangerous places to be a journalist. Things, however, haven’t improved with the end of conflict. The criminalisation of politics during our long political transition makes peacetime almost as dangerous as the conflict years for the press.

A regional media conference in Islamabad on 3 May World Press Freedom Day organised by the Press Council of Pakistan coincided with the assassination attempt on Pakistani TV journalist, Hamid Mir, allegedly by the country’s intelligence agency, the ISI.

Mir hosts a popular political debate program in Pakistan’s Geo TV and is known to raise difficult questions, especially regarding the secretive ISI and its role in promoting extremism to weaken democratic rule in the country. Three years back another outspoken investigative journalist Saleem Shahzad went missing from the heart of the capital, and was found dead the next day 200 km away. He had recently released a book exposing the penetration of Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups into Pakistan’s military.

Local journalists I met and spoke to claimed matter-of-factly that it was indeed the ISI which abducted, tortured and then killed Shahzad. Yet, a year long inquiry failed to name any culprit in the report because the civilian government simply lacks political will and courage to do so.

Luckily, Hamid Mir has survived the attack and under tremendous internal and international pressure the Nawaz Sharif government has once again formed an inquiry commission to ascertain facts of the case. No one expects much out of that inquiry either.

Four days after the attack on Mir, journalist and author Mohammad Hanif quoted senior Pakistani Editor Imran Aslam in his Guardian article as saying bluntly: “There was a time (in Pakistan) if they didn’t like what you wrote they censored you. They cut out a word or a line. If they got really angry they got your editor fired. Now they just shoot you.”

The saying ‘you don’t know what you have until you have lost it’ is one Nepali journalists are well aware of, having faced restrictions from all sections of the political spectrum. The state of perpetual impunity resulting from the passage through parliament of the watered down TRC bill exposes Nepal’s democratic deficit.

Nearly eight years after the signing of the peace accord, the Sushil Koirala government passed the TRC bill which received the Presidential seal earlier this week. But the process was an eyewash, intended to bring the peace process to a hasty conclusion by getting the constitution over and done with. The international community was convinced of this priority, and has maintained a baffling silence.

Powerful people will have to go down if we ever find out how Krishna Sen, Ambika Timilsina and seven other journalists from Janadesh Weekly were tortured and killed ten years ago. If we investigated the killings of journalists Gyanendra Khadka in Sindhupalchok or Dekendra Thapa in Dailekh, some senior comrades may be implicated.

To be sure, Nepali democracy and free press is under attack on multiple fronts in recent years. The link between local administration, political actors, thugs disguised as businessmen and criminal gangs who monopolise public contracts have become so powerful, reporters censor themselves to stay safe. As a result, local crime and corruption mostly go unreported, further entrenching the state of impunity.

A 2013 survey conducted by Alliance for Social Diologue (ASD) reveals that more than 75 per cent of Nepali journalists sampled in the study felt unsafe reporting on the issue of local corruption and crime. Similarly, only 35 per cent said they felt safe reporting local administration’s involvement in the misdeeds.

Interestingly, 76 per cent of the journalists also say they don’t discuss sensitive issues with their editors for fear of being misquoted.

Over the years, we seem to have taken our freedom for granted and failed to imagine that democratic regimes with undemocratic institutions are perfectly capable of stifling our freedoms to abate accountability.

Read also:

Just free, EDITORIAL

Many more Dekendras, FROM THE NEPALI PRESS

We won’t forget, KUNDA DIXIT

Transitional injustice, KUNDA DIXIT

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