AJR  Features
From AJR,   April/May 2006

Online Opposition   

In the face of the king’s crackdown on the news media, Nepal’s journalists are fighting back via the Internet.

By Sherry Ricchiardi
Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

On a clear afternoon, the reporters at Kantipur Daily are treated to a dazzling sight: The snow-covered peaks of the majestic Himalayas are visible from their fourth-floor newsroom in the heart of Kathmandu. The towering mountain range might be ringed with wisps of clouds or tinged crimson by a glorious sunset.

The spectacular setting is the one constant in their lives these days. Nepal's journalists are heading into the second year of living dangerously.

The media remain under the iron fist of King Gyanendra, a tyrant who on February 1, 2005, thrust the remote South Asian nation into a communications dark age. Telephone lines were cut, mobile phone service was shut down and Internet access was blocked. Dozens of FM radio stations and community newspapers were closed or forbidden to report on the royal coup. Outspoken leaders in the Federation of Nepalese Journalists were arrested. Many editors went into hiding.

Within days, the media community began fighting back. Some took an activist role, helping organize street demonstrations and devising ways to circumvent censors. A small cadre of journalists took to the Internet as soon as access was restored a week later. One of the leaders was Dinesh Wagle, who coordinates the art and style section for Kantipur Daily, the country's leading newspaper.

A handful of online reporters transmitted alerts that democratic Nepal, a nation of 28 million bordering China and India, was being hammered back toward totalitarian rule. Operating in one of the world's poorest countries — many villages have no electricity, running water or phone lines — these computer geeks used 21st-century technology to bring international attention to their cause.

There is no way to measure the impact of their outreach, but a May 2005 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists singled out the online reporters for praise. CPJ described how journalists' smuggled e-mails and clandestine Web sites and blogs cast them at odds with the rogue government. Wagle, 27, was mentioned in the CPJ report.

When we met in the newsroom last November, Wagle sat at his computer with the homepage of his blog on the screen, shaking his head in disbelief at his own success. He learned about blogging from articles in the New York Times and other publications. When he opened an account with www.blogger.com in mid-2003, he had never heard the term "cyberdissident."

The gregarious reporter began his blogging career by writing about sports, parties and music in Kathmandu. At first, his addiction to the Internet prompted some eye-rolling among newsroom veterans like News Editor Guna Raj Luitel, who saw it as a frivolous pastime, akin to playing computer games. That notion changed after February 8, 2005.

The minute Internet access was restored, Wagle took action, posting a bold new motto, "United We Blog! for a Democratic Nepal." The site soon was linked to and mentioned by dozens of others, including Online Journalism Review, published by the University of Southern California, and UCLA's Asia Institute. Curt Hopkins, director of the Committee to Protect Bloggers, credits Wagle with being "a leading voice in a chorus heard around the world" about Nepal's backslide toward tyranny. During our visit, Wagle scrolled through thousands of postings on his blog, including some from the United States, Europe and Australia.

Like many others, he operates at risk during a time when dozens of Nepalese journalists have been beaten, arrested and detained in hellholes that pass for jails. "What are they going to do, put me in prison for a few days, a few years?" he asks with a shrug. "It is a matter of principle."

In an effort to stay out of trouble, Wagle declines to post some types of stories. He avoids blatant calls to overthrow the monarchy or pieces that glorify Maoist rebels, who continue to win territory. The bottom line: "We don't personally criticize the king, but we won't stop writing about human rights abuses," he says. The site continues to post stories on pro-democracy demonstrations that in recent months have sparked tear gas attacks, strictly enforced curfews and mass arrests. Some 5,000 unique visitors access the site each day, according to Wagle.

Why hasn't the government shut down the site? Wagle speculates that due to Nepal's high illiteracy rate and minuscule Internet audience, the government might not view United We Blog! as a threat. Or the regime simply may not have the know-how or resources to carry out the kind of Internet surveillance that thwarts cyberjournalism in neighboring China.

Still, there is little reason for optimism. In its 2005 report, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières placed Nepal at the top of the list of countries that enforce the harshest curbs on the media, including arrests and physical attacks against journalists by security forces. CPJ continues to run news alerts and sends protests to Nepal's leaders about the harassment. Nepalese journalists worry that if the international spotlight dims, the government will retaliate against them.

"We are mentally prepared for whatever comes," Luitel says. "We smelled a rat [before the coup], but we did not know how bad it would be." Luitel was among those facing guns in the newsroom when the crackdown occurred.

When he awoke that morning, he tuned to a popular FM station and heard an ominous bulletin: The king would address the nation at 10 a.m. The editor, scrounging for clues, dived for a telephone to call government sources. He quickly learned that opposition leaders were being arrested and Kantipur Publications had been occupied by the military.

As King Gyanendra spoke to the nation, the government began implementing a communications blackout.

Luitel's phone went dead.

When the editor stepped off the elevator at 11 a.m., military censors were on the scene, under orders to vet every story. Reporters had no working telephones, and the government shut down Nepal's Internet servers, so journalists couldn't see what Reuters and the Associated Press were reporting about the coup. Armed men had become their new copy editors.

"In the initial days, our goal was to keep the newspaper going," Luitel said during an interview in his office. "We were heavily guarded and told that they would stop us at gunpoint if they had to. Every word was checked. Confronting the censors was pointless. They were just guys following orders."

On February 2, there were no stories about the reaction of opposition parties or comments from diplomats condemning the coup. There was no speculation on how the takeover would play out with Maoist insurgents. Photos of the king and his proclamation dominated the pages.

With their hands tied, editors searched for ways to signal readers. One day that week, Kantipur Daily's lead editorial — usually on a burning political issue — was about ballet. A few days later, the topic was archery. When censors deleted paragraphs, editors left the space blank. "We think the public got the message," Luitel says. "We had to act carefully, pushing the boundaries while keeping the press alive." Media bosses were summoned for interrogations.

Luitel praises the new generation of cyberjournalists like Wagle and sheepishly admits he has taken to blogging. Reporters Sans Frontières calls online reporters the new champions of freedom of expression and provides a detailed handbook for bloggers and cyberdissidents on its Web site.

Americans not tuned into the blogosphere aren't likely to know much about Nepal's media clampdown or bloody civil war. The royal takeover was barely a blip in the American media as the aftermath of the devastating tsunami and the Iraq war dominated headlines.

Newsday was one of the few American newspapers that paid close attention. In August, the paper ran a four-day series by correspondent Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman, who trekked for days through rugged terrain to reach Maoist strongholds.

Why did Newsday jump on the story? McAllester and Saman argued that an important series of events was being grossly underreported. Roy Gutman, Newsday's foreign editor, saw a parallel to Afghanistan before the September 11 terrorist attacks, when few paid attention to a boiling cauldron in another obscure part of the world.

"These smaller wars can swell into much bigger things," says Gutman, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for his coverage of the conflict in Bosnia. In an August 14 story, McAllester described Nepal, situated between emerging nuclear powers China and India, as "teetering on the brink of collapse that could result in huge bloodletting and international confrontation."

A few other journalists also sounded alarms. An October 30 story in the New York Times Magazine by Times South Asia Bureau Chief Somini Sengupta labeled Nepal's Maoist movement "arguably the most resilient and ruinous Communist insurgency in the world today." After spending weeks with the rebel army, Ed Douglas began a piece in November's National Geographic with a female Maoist fighter who boasted of killing more than a dozen Nepali police officers in a single night. Douglas reported that Maoist revolutionaries, the majority of them homegrown Communists, were pushing to overthrow the corrupt regime.

None of these developments bodes well for Nepal's feisty press corps. The 5,000-member Federation of Nepalese Journalists and its president, Bishnu Nisthuri, remain among the few beacons of hope. Nisthuri, arrested on February 4, 2005, credits his release 18 days later to a strong international outcry that might have left the king's thugs second-guessing themselves for making him a martyr.

Last year, a who's who of media monitors, including CPJ, traveled to Nepal on fact-finding missions. In July, representatives of 12 international organizations issued a joint statement condemning the "killings, attacks, disappearances, intimidation, harassment, detention and displacement" of media practitioners. UNESCO and the International Press Institute were among the signatories.

Nisthuri worries that the federation could be the next target. "They might lock up this office, but they can never shut down the organizational structure. We do not have any existence without freedom. We will never give up," he said last November. Military censors are gone from newsrooms but the chilling effect of reporting bans and self-censorship endures. "They are gone from our office, but they have left a battalion of soldiers in our minds," says Luitel, who sees at least one positive aspect in all this.

Since the coup, neophytes like Wagle have taught the veterans some new tricks. One morning in a small meeting room, Luitel and his colleagues talked about strategies for dealing with the worst-case scenario: a complete shutdown of the country's independent media. "If we had a couple of laptop computers and a few satellite telephones, we would be OK," he said as the others listened intently. "They couldn't stop us." Senior writer Sherry Ricchiardi (sricchia@iupui.edu) frequently writes about embattled journalists for AJR.