The voice of the voiceless press
Guna Raj Luitel, a news editor for Kantipur newspaper, writes about Kantipur Publications' recent problems with Maoist-affiliated trade unions
Friday, October 19, 2007
For the first time in my 18-yearlong journalism career, I am shaken by the attacks against the Nepali press. Even the censorship and intimidation by the royal regime after Feb. 1, 2005, was much easier to deal with than the terrorization now at the hands of the All Nepal Communication, Printing and Publication Workers' Union (ANCPPWU), a group affiliated with the Communist Party of Nepal and Maoists.
The recent intimidation of Kantipur Publications has raised vital questions about fundamental press freedom and editorial supremacy. Is the editor or the head of the union more powerful in deciding whether the newspaper will be published?
I came to the conclusion that the union leader has the upper hand. In our recent crisis, the editorial department produced the newspaper but it never hit the stands. The ANCPPWU prevented the paper from reaching the people. I even discovered they could literally "stop the presses" and put content they wanted published into the paper, which should be the editor's ultimate prerogative.
For the past few months, the Nepali press has witnessed the growth of the Maoist labor union. Everyone is now well aware of the methods used by the union to attack the press. The concern is that other political parties and the government will apply the trade union's tactics to suppress the press whenever they wish.
On Sept. 28, 2007, for the first time in the 15-year history of Kantipur Publications, its newspapers Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post didn't hit newsstands because the ANCPPWU obstructed the publication of the main edition in Kathmandu. Our Chitwan and Biratnagar editions, however, were published.
But the newspapers' employees felt reassured after learning the Patan Appellate Court issued an interim order to the ANCPPWU, instructing its members not to disrupt the publication and distribution of The Kathmandu Post and Kantipur and not to engage in disorderly conduct on the newspapers' premises. Kailash Sirohiya, the managing director of Kantipur Publications, had sought the legal remedy when the union prevented the publication of advertisements from Sept. 26.
On Sept. 29, both newspapers published but only because of heavy security. In the middle of the night, members of the union had tried to disrupt the printing process.
On Sept. 30, from the fourth floor of my office building, I saw about two dozen union members enter the premises, carrying old tires and newspapers. My colleagues from Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post and I raced to the ground floor to intervene -- the union members planned to burn the tires and papers and trap employees inside the building. They had locked the only gate to the premises.
We urged the union leaders and activists not to do anything that would damage the property or endanger the lives of the more than 100 people working in the building. But the union members couldn't be reasoned with. They assaulted Sirohiya and smashed his car. Kantipur Publications employees were finally rescued when police stormed into the premises. They even arrested the chairperson of the union and one member.
After this incident, the management fired 11 people who were involved in the vandalism and disturbance, and the journalists returned to work on the next day's paper.
But the threats from ANCPPWU members remained and the Young Communist League (YCL), the Maoist youth wing, joined in. YCL members tried to damage Kantipur Publications' printing press, but the police's heavy presence prevented them from stopping publication. They did succeed, however, in disrupting the distribution of the newspaper in Pokhara and other towns. They even threatened to kill the staff of the Chitwan printing office, so employees couldn't work that day and production was halted.
On Oct. 1, speaking in front of Kantipur Publications premises, a sitting member of the interim legislature and president of the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Trade Union Federation (ANTUF) Salikram Jamarkattel threatened to halt the publication of Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post further and force Kantipur Television to go off the air within four days. He also announced that ANTUF maintained a list of pro-management journalists for future action.
"The Nepali people will not die without the information carried by Kantipur daily. We do not need its information. We do not need its journalists either," Jamarkattel said.
As the Maoist Member of Parliament threatened the Kantipur newspapers, the publishers and editors met with Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to plead for more security. The ailing prime minister emerged from his bedroom and told us that he would assure press freedom. He directed security agencies to protect all the media houses.
We were delighted with the support from Prime Minister Koirala. We returned to work on the paper and sent it to the presses around midnight.
On Oct. 2, I waited for the newspaper over my morning tea, but it never came. I later learned that ANCPPWU and YCL members entered our printing facilities and tampered with the press machine so that it couldn't publish the papers. The regional division of Kantipur Publications in Bharatpur, Chitwan couldn't publish for a second consecutive day either.
In response, journalists, intellectuals, writers, activists and civil society members took to the streets against the Maoist's intimidation. The union members, however, organised a protest in front of the Kantipur Publications gate, so we were unable to take part in the rally against them. ANCPPWU and other Maoist organisations issued more threats, and they urged transportation laborers not to carry Kantipur Publications' newspapers in their vehicles.
Nepal's Home Ministry denounced the attacks on the media and threatened to punish those who obstruct the press.
"The attack on the Kantipur Publications is a blatant attack on the right to information. The concerned sides, particularly the Maoists, need to take this seriously and stop such activities immediately."
There was no response from the Maoists.
The government intensified security at the Kantipur Publications offices and press facilities and sent security to the main distribution points, but the trade union managed to foil the efforts of Kantipur to reach its readers.
Maoist Chairman Prachanda (aka Pushpa Kamal Dahal) and the party's second-in-command, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, arranged a meeting with Kantipur Publications management after word spread around the world of the Maoists' extreme behavior against the press. The two sides met at a hotel in Thamel and agreed to start negotiations again. Afterward, union members withdrew their public protests and the publications returned to newsstands.
The entire episode reflects how free the Nepali press is. If the royal regime was a frying pan, the Maoists are a burning fire. Kantipur Publications' situation is not unique. Other newspapers like Nepal Samacharpatra, The Himalayan Times and Annapurna Post have already faced the same problem.
The demands of Maoist unions jeopardize the growth and continuity of the press. They insist part-time workers like delivery boys and cleaning staffs receive permanent jobs. Kantipur Publications is unable to take on the huge financial burden of creating permanent positions for part-time staff, but management is willing to guarantee the continuation of the part-time jobs. The trade union, however, is not ready to compromise.
The unions are entitled to raise the demands of laborers and the management should address them. But curtailing the freedom of the press in the name of the labor movement is intolerable. Nepal's press is as young as its democracy. It has faced its shares of ups and downs with each political upheaval. Journalists fought against King Gyanendra's absolute regime, and now the Maoists threaten to destroy the free press because it stands as the main obstacle to the creation of a Maoist autocratic regime.
But the constitution and the laws of the land guarantee freedom of the press. The Nepali press has progressed and matured, and it always stands on the side of democracy and peace.
The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.
Date Posted: 10/19/2007