WEDNESDAY, DECEMBER 24, 2008
By Ajay Pradhan
These are strange times. But these are not unique times. History repeats itself.
In Nepal, under the implicit protection and complicity of Maoist leaders in the party that leads the coalition, its unions have got a free pass from the leadership to unleash a reign of terror on the free press.
Despite leading the governing coalition, Maoists are continuing their insurgency-time behaviour of using violence to intimidate journalists that dare to report news that they do not like. Such attacks on the free press are unacceptable and should not go unpunished.
On Sunday, 50 Maoist-affiliated trade union members, most of whom were the feared Maoist-affiliated YCL, carried out a vicious physical attack on the journalists, management and staff of Himalmedia, a Kathmandu-based media enterprise that publishes the Nepali Times and the Himal Khabarpatrika and vandalised their head office. Many Himalmedia staffers were injured in the assault by a large gang of masked Maoist YCL.
The attack drew immediate national and international condemnation. The embarrassed Maoist Prime Minister Prachanda put a political spin on the matter and blamed the attack on “ex-monarchists” who had infiltrated his party to defame it.
The very next day, however, the defiant Maoist trade union chief, Salikram Jammarkattel, who is also a Maoist member of the Constituent Assembly, ironically rendered Prachanda’s spin doctoring worthless when he threatened further, more vicious attacks on Himalmedia if it did not yield in to the demands of a Maoist union. Two Maoist trade union leaders who led the attack were safely ensconced in a YCL camp.
Physical assault by a group that is affiliated with the party in power can only be construed as the government’s attempt to muzzle the free press. Maoists maintain that this is a labour dispute, but the facts prove otherwise. Sunday’s assault was triggered by criticism of Jammarkattel the previous day by the publication. This is deeply troubling: the Maoists must realise that their days of guerrilla insurgency are over.
The previous week, on 25 October 2008 Maoist perpetrators attacked with stones the Himalmedia CEO and his driver. On 16 November Maoists burned 5,000 copies of Himal Khabarpatrika at a distribution depot, making death threats against staffers.
Earlier, the Maoists vandalised the offices of Kantipur Publications that publishes The Kathmandu Post and Kantipur for ciriticising the Maoist party. Even after winning the CA election, Prachanda is on record warning Kantipur not to criticise his party, making unspecified threats if it did not comply.
This is not how a government builds a nation, earns trust and inspires confidence. Intimidation and violence cannot muzzle the media. Prachanda would do well to keep this basic tenet of free speech in his mind. Otherwise, the infamy of vicious YCL activities will engulf his credibility, much like what the infamous Mandales did to expedite the demise of the seemingly invincible partyless Panchayat system that ruled Nepal for 30 years.