>> Wednesday, December 24, 2008
By Ajay Pradhan | December 24, 2008
These are strange times. But these are not unique times. History repeats itself.
When in government, you're supposed to maintain law and order. What do you do when those who are in power themselves defend, even encourage, actions of musclemen who attack, intimidate with violence and death threats, vandalize, and carry out violent physical assaults on journalists who don't tow their line?
In Nepal, under the implicit protection and complicity of the leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal - Maoist, the party that leads the current governing coalition, the Maoist-affiliated trade union groups have got a free pass from the CPN-Maoist leadership to unleash with impunity a reign of terror on the free press.
Despite leading the governing coalition, Maoists are still continuing their insurgency-time mentality and behavior of using violence to intimidate free press that dare to report news that the Maoists don't like. Such attack on the free press is unacceptable and should not go unpunished.
On Sunday, approximately 50 Maoist-affiliated trade union members, most of whom are the defamed and feared Maoist-affiliated Young Communist League members (more commonly known simply as the YCL), carried out a vicious physical attack on the journalists, management and staff of Himalmedia, a Kathmandu-based media enterprise that publishes such reputable publications as the Nepali Times and the Himal Khabarpatrika and vandalized their head office. Many Himalmedia staffers were injured in the assault by a large gang of masked Maoist YCLs.
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 whom he called the "ex-monarchists" who he said infiltrated his party to defame them. 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 the media house did not yield in to the demands of Maoist trade union. That was an admission that Maoist leadership encouraged the attack. The two Maoist trade union leaders who led the attackers were reportedly safely ensconced in a YCL camp. Their demand was reinstatement of 22 non-journalist staffers who were let go.
Prachanda and Jammarkattel should know you don't settle labor dispute through physical attacks. If Himalmedia had let go those 22 staff members illegally, then the proper course of action would be to go to a labor tribunal or a court of law. Physical assault by a group that is affiliated with the party in power can only be construed as the government's intention to muzzle the free press. Maoists maintain that this is an issue of labor dispute. However, facts show that this is an issue of Maoists trying to muzzle the press. It appears that Sunday's assault was triggered by criticism of Jammarkattel the previous day by the Himal Khabarpatrika. This is deeply troubling. You simply don't muzzle criticism of a public figure by using physical force. Maoists must realize that their days of guerrilla insurgency are over. They must play fair and peaceful politics.
This is not the first time Maoist-affiliated labor groups have attacked Himalmedia. On October 25, Maoist perpetrators attacked with stones the Himalmedia CEO and his driver while they were in a van. On November 16, a group of Maoists burned 5,000 copies of a Himalmedia newspaper at a distribution depot. Then they made death threats against Himalmedia staffers the next day.
In October 2007, Maoists vandalized the offices of another large Kathmandu-based media enterprise, the Kantipur Publications that publishes such popular newspapers as the Kathmandu Post and the Kantipur for ciriticizing the Maoist party. Even after winning the Constituent Assembly election, Prachanda himself is on record for having warned Kantipur journalists not to criticize the Maoists and made unspecified threats if the media house did not comply with his demand. There have been many other attacks on journalists; some have even been murdered.
This is not how a government builds a nation. This is not how a government inspires confidence. This is not how a government builds trust. Without confidence and trust, the Maoists might as well forget about building a New Nepal.
Let's be very clear on one thing. Intimidation and violent physical attacks cannot and will not muzzle the media. Prachanda would do well for himself keeping this basic tenet of free press and freedom of speech squarely in his mind. Otherwise, the rising infamy of vicious YCL activities will engulf the credibility of Prachanda and his comrades, much like what the infamous Mandales did to expedite the demise of the seemingly invincible Panchayat system of government that had undemocratically ruled the country for 30 years from the 1960s to the 1980s, banning opposition political parties. That history is not very old and still fresh in our memory. The much despised Panchayati Mandales did then what YCLs are doing today.
If Maoists don't check the activities of YCL, they had better recall the fate of the despised and infamous Mandales of the Panchayat era that was, in part, responsible for the end of the Panchayat system. If YCLs are not the new Mandales, Maoists will have to show that.