Media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said at least 10 Nepalese journalists have been threatened in connection with their coronavirus reporting since late March, even as they remind the country’s authorities of their constitutional obligation to guarantee total press freedom.
Radio Janakpur manager Shital Sah said he was threatened after his programme “Akhada, Corona Special” exposed 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.
Sah said that ever since then, he felt “constantly under 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.
In another disturbing example of this kind of harassment, Rajan Upadhyay, a reporter for the Sukla Gandaki 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.
At the same time, 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.
“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 May 13. They beat him with pipes although he made it clear that he was a journalist.
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.
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.
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. (Source: RSF)