Freedom of the press is one of the most important foundations of a free, democratic society. It serves an important role in promoting institutional transparency, performing the crucial role of alerting the voting public to government overreach or malfeasance, thus mobilizing a response.
It is also an important litmus test of a new government's intentions. If a new government fails this test, a downward spiral into tyranny may result.
Nepal's new Maoist government is in danger of failing that test. On April 10th, the (Maoist) Communist Party of Nepal won a plurality of seats in the Constituent Assembly. Not long after that, the new government sent a disturbing message to the media.
While addressing a rally to celebrate the country's transition from monarchy to a republic, the head of the Maoist party and soon-to-be Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kumal Dahal, warned the media of "serious consequences" if they continued to criticize the ruling party. "We will no longer tolerate criticism as we have already been elected by the people," he said.
Since then, the independent media have been under attack in Nepal. Journalists have been threatened, intimidated, beaten, kidnapped, and even killed. Mobs, sometimes composed of Maoist party adherents, have attacked the premises of publications that criticized the government. They have vandalized equipment, destroyed bundles of newspapers and threatened and assaulted the staff while avoiding any legal consequences.
On January 11th, approximately 15 men broke into the apartment of Uma Singh, a 26-year-old newspaper and radio journalist and advocate of women's rights - in the southeastern town of Janakpur and stabbed her to death. The United Nations, the European Union, Reporters Without Borders and a number of other journalistic, and human rights organizations condemned the murder.
In a written statement, the U.S. Embassy in Nepal said, "The murder of journalist Uma Singh on January 11 in Janakpur is deeply disturbing. We call on the Government of Nepal to investigate this crime and prosecute the perpetrators under Nepali law.
"Whether or not this heinous crime was the latest in the recent wave of attacks aimed at silencing journalists and undermining freedom of expression in Nepal," said the U.S. Embassy statement, "it was an assault on a basic tenet of democracy – the rule of law. The growing incidents of violence, many of which target women, underscore the necessity for the Government to improve protection of basic human rights. Only when these rights are protected, can democracy flourish."