Home News Arrests threaten Nepal’s status as South Asia’s model for free speech

Arrests threaten Nepal’s status as South Asia’s model for free speech

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In a region where one country after another is drifting toward authoritarianism, the tiny Himalayan nation of Nepal stands as a glaring exception.

Political debate remains largely free, with powerful people easily challenged. In a poor country emerging from centuries of monarchical repression and decades of insurgency, such openness shows that democratic expression is not necessarily tied to economic status.

However, the arrest of the boss of Nepal’s largest media group last month has raised concerns about the government’s compliance with free speech and whether Nepal will follow in the footsteps of its South Asian neighbors Pakistan, Bangladesh and India.

The executive, Kailash Sirohiya, was detained nearly two weeks ago by Nepal’s Interior Minister Rabi Lamichhane in thinly veiled retaliation for a campaign by Mr. Sirohiya’s Kantipur Media Group, which had published extensive negative coverage of the minister.

The company’s news report revealed that Ramichana, who was a popular TV host before entering politics, had violated the law by retaining his second country’s citizenship of the United States while serving in parliament.

Mr. Lamichane resigned but returned to parliament a few months later to take charge of the Ministry of Interior after resolving his citizenship issue. However, Kantipur continued to investigate Mr. Lamichane’s conduct and later reported allegations of corruption against him.

The media group is not the only one to publish stories critical of Ramichane, but it is the most influential. The company owns the Nepali-language newspaper Kathmandu Gazette (the largest in circulation), its English-language sister publication The Kathmandu Post, as well as television and radio channels and magazines.

Yubaraj Ghimire, editor of a Nepali news website, said authorities arrested Silohia “in revenge.” “The government has sent a message that if you criticize the government, the government will silence you.”

The nature of Mr. Sirohiya’s arrest suggests that he was deliberately targeted.

There were complaints that Silohia’s citizenship number, which every Nepali has, was the same as his. While such allegations are serious, Nepal’s secretive citizenship system is subject to numerous irregularities, some involving judges and generals.

Mr. Sirohiya’s case was different in that he was arrested and detained before the facts were established. In previous cases, an investigation was first conducted to determine whether the problem was the result of illegal acts such as clerical errors or forgery.

Dozens of police officers, led by a senior superintendent of police, arrived at the Kantipur police station on May 21 and loaded Mr. Sirohiya into a van. He was taken overnight from the Nepali capital Kathmandu to Dhanusha district bordering India, where he was held until Thursday.

The Secretary General of Amnesty International visited Kathmandu during his visit to the region. Agnès Callamardcriticised the government’s decision to detain Mr Sirohiya, saying the charges did not require it.

Kantipur’s criticism of the report targeted Ramichane, who is the interior minister in the multi-party coalition government. Analysts said Sirohia’s arrest showed that all parties agreed that press freedom was a thorn in their side. They said Nepal’s once delicate balance could now tilt in favor of the political class.

Santosh Pariyar, the leader of Ramichane’s Independence Party, denied that the arrest was retaliation for critical journalism. He said it was “purely coincidental” that Ramichane “concluded” that Silohia had violated Nepal’s citizenship law.

“We are very aware of how important the press is to democracy,” Mr. Pariyar said.

Still, the arrest had a chilling effect, raising fears that the country could be sliding back into the dark ages it had seemingly escaped.

The monarchy ended in 2008 when the last king, Gyanendra Shah, was forced to step down amid protests. During the monarchy, the press was censored and journalists were often arrested and jailed.

But Nepal’s new constitution establishes a parliamentary democracy that ensures full press freedom, and a vibrant civil society resists any attempts to restrict speech and continues to loudly hold those in power accountable.

Pushpa Kamal Dahal, also known as Prachanda, one of the Maoist rebels who pushed to overthrow the monarchy, is now prime minister and leader of an alliance in which Ramichane is a minister. Even some of Dahal’s former supporters have criticized him for Sirohia’s arrest.

“I feel ashamed to see Prachanda following in Gyanendra’s footsteps after succeeding the king,” former Maoist leader and Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai wrote on the X website.

Mujib Mashar Reporting contributed by New Delhi.

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