During the three-day nationwide strike, attacks on Nepali reporters across the country heightened fears among journalists. They became targets for violence as Nepal’s constitutional deadline approaches on May 27.
“Journalists during tense times like strikes play an important role informing the public,” said Ujwal Acharya, of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ). “After today’s violence against reporters, it is a dangerous time for journalism in Nepal.”
Acharya reports that FNJ received reports of 24 acts of violence against journalists or media vehicles on Sunday May 20th alone. 7 reporters were injured as a result of clashing with protestors, who attempted to stop all vehicles during the first of a three-day nationwide strike, or localy referred to as Nepal bandh.
“These appear to be coordinated attacks targeting journalists,” he noted. “In the past, most attacks on the media in Nepal were against a single outlet or publication, but today’s did not discriminate.”
According to the most recent analysis by Freedom House, a US-based NGO, Nepal remains one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist.
Prakash Giri, a producer at Sagarmatha Television, says many of his reporters were harassed or harmed during the protests. “One of our camera men was grabbed and thrown from his motorbike,” said Giri, “ then the bike was permanently damaged as he was held back by protesters.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international watchdog, issued a statement condemning the attacks on media.
“We are deeply concerned about violence against journalists reported by the FNJ on Sunday, which we believe is part of a pattern of attacks on the press which will continue to take place as long as the attackers escape with impunity,” said Bob Dietz, Asia Program Coordinator.
CPJ has urged Prime Minister Bhattarai to strengthen the guarantee of media freedom in the constitution as a first step to reversing this trend.
Much of the violence has been centered in the capital, Kathmandu, where roads were nearly empty all day as protesters threatened anyone in motor vehicles and often harassed people on bicycles as well. Civilian reports from districts in the south of the country say that bicycle tires are being slashed at some checkpoints.
The new constitution
Adibasi Janajati Struggle Committee (AJSC) has called the three-day strike to press for their demands for inclusion of ethnic identity in the federal structure through the new constitution. Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), an umbrella group, has supported the strike. The group wants to participate in the naming and delineating of the states, and accuses the government of deciding on this model in a non-participatory manner.
On Sunday, NEFIN chairman Aang Kaji Sherpa made a threatening statement toward journalists during a press meeting at Nepal Reporters Club. Later in the day, Chairman Raj Kumar Lekhi issued a statement urging protesters to not impede the movement of media among others.
Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai on Sunday also condemned the attacks on media professionals. Journalists, meanwhile, say inadequate protection from police is hampering their ability to work.
“Our reporters walked back to the office and said that the police stood watching as they were shoved from their motorbikes,” explained Giri, who believes the Prime Minister’s promise to compensate reporters for damaged property is incomplete without a guarantee of greater police protection.
But while reports of violence surface, some observers caution that this is a uniquely volatile and complicated situation in which alliances might influence professionalism. “We need to remember that many reporters have their own political sympathies,” said Dharma Adhikary, “and that means they might put themselves at higher risk by becoming participants rather than objective observers.”
Nonetheless, international observers have taken note of the targeted aggression and urged protesters to stop. The International Federation of Journalists and the South Asia Media Solidarity Network condemned the violence in a joint statement released today.
The violence against journalists has continued all three days of the strike. Vehicles were attacked and damaged, and media houses warned their staff not to travel alone. Even for individual journalists it wasnt save to travel without concealing their cameras, notebooks, and press passes to protect themselves.