Nepalese journalists threatened, attacked and censored over Covid-19 coverage
After at least 10 journalists have been threatened in connection with their coronavirus reporting in Nepal since late March, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reminds the country’s authorities that they have a constitutional obligation to guarantee total press freedom.
One of the latest victims of the disturbing surge in death threats against journalists is Radio Janakpur manager Shital Sah, who was threatened after his programme “Akhada, Corona Special” on 13 May, when he described the carelessness of the coronavirus tracking centre set up by a hospital in Janakpur, a city 225 km southeast of Kathmandu.
As Sah left the radio station, he was accosted and harassed by three individuals that he suspects were sent by provincial health minister Nawal Kishore Sah, one of whom was a member of the hospital’s staff.
He told RSF that, ever since that broadcast, he has felt “constantly under the surveillance” whenever he goes to Janakpur, a city where – as he reminded RSF – the journalist and women’s rights activity Uma Singh was stabbed to death in her home in 2009 and media owner Arun Singhaniya was gunned down in 2010.
Dilip Paudel, a reporter for the daily newspaper Nagarik, was threatened on social media and in phone calls in April after reporting how a pregnant woman had been evicted from her apartment in the Kathmandu suburb of Kirtipur because she was suspected of being infected with Covid-19.
In another disturbing example of this kind of harassment, Rajan Upadhyay, a reporter for the SuklaGandaki radio station and website, was accused on Facebook of sowing “fear” and spreading “fake news” after he covered the case of a woman who was placed in quarantine in the western province of Gandaki.
Censorship and intimidation
“Attempts to control the narrative about the virus’s spread in Nepal must not result in threats of this kind against journalists,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk. “We urge Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to ensure that, during this pandemic, press freedom is ‘total,’ in accordance with the preamble of the 2015 constitution. His government’s agents must also immediately cease any attempt to intimidate or censor the media.”
Nepal’s journalists have been subjected to physical attacks as well as threats. Badri Narayan Yadav, a reporter for the weekly Nabajagriti in the southeastern town of Siraha, was attacked by soldiers when he took photos near a lockdown checkpoint on 13 May. They beat him with pipes although he made it clear that he was a journalist.
The harassment of the media can be more insidious, as the Kathmandu Press website discovered at the end of March. Editor Kosmos Biswokarma learned that, because of pressure from “above,” a story about the alleged involvement of relatives of senior government officials in the purchase of medical equipment from China had been removed by Shiran Technologies, the company that oversees the site, one of whose owners happens to be the prime minister’s IT adviser. Two days later, Kathmandu Press director Govinda Pariyar reported that his “administrator’s access” to the site had been removed. The ensuing outcry about this conflict of interest finally result in the offending article being reinstated.
The affair could have stopped there but the government went on the offensive against Federation of Nepalese Journalists general secretary Ramesh Bista after he issued a statement condemning the story’s removal. The prime minister’s press advisor called Bista and told him: “I won’t spare you for this conduct, it will be taken into account.” Bista told RSF the threat worried him. "I take it very seriously,” he said. "I feel they can do anything at any time, but I have no alternative but to fight for our rights.”
The prime minister himself directly attacked several media outlets after journalists based in the capital reported an exodus of workers from the Kathmandu Valley in mid-April as a result of the coronavirus lockdown. They included Binu Subedi, a journalist with the Kantipur Daily newspaper, who reported that workers had been walking for up to 15 hours a day along the motorway out of the capital in order to return home.
The prime minister told the editors of government newspapers that he found the reports “mysterious” and that he failed to understand how journalists could have discovered this as his own security agencies had told him nothing. His comments were followed by a government-orchestrated online harassment campaign that included insults and threats against Subedi on bogus Twitter accounts, and then against Subedi’s editor, Sudheer Sharma, after he backed her up.
The prime minister’s hostility towards the media has been accompanied by expressions of mistrust. He told the Communist Party, which backed his return to the prime ministership in 2018, to keep its distance from the media and not “leak sensitive discussions and information.” On social distancing grounds, media access to party and health ministry meetings is being restricted and requires prior permission.
“You could lose your life”
Like the prime minister, regional government officials also try to control media coverage and intimidate reporters. Dan Singh Pariyar, a parliamentarian in the northwestern province of Karnali, sent threatening messages to Nagarik bureau chief Nagendra Upadhyay after he reported that Pariyar’s wife had been driven in a government car at the height of the lockdown.
In Chitwan district, 100 km west of Kathmandu, Subas Pandit, a reporter for the Onlinekhabar website, was threatened by two public health workers on 29 April after he reported cases of smuggling of medical supplies used in a local hospital’s coronavirus unit.
The ruling party is not the only one making threats. In the eastern district of Khotang, the local leader of the opposition Congress Party telephoned and threatened Prabhavnews website editor Uttam Chaulagain after the site reported that the politician had not cooperated in quarantining someone suspected of having Covid-19. "You could lose your life for writing such news," he told Chaulagain.
Nepal is ranked 112th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.