Uma Singh: Inspirational Nepali journalist murdered for her courageous truth 1983 - January 11 2009 Print E-mail

 ISSUE #434 (16 JAN 2009 - 22 JAN 2009)

Flame of truth

By KANAK MANI DIXIT in JANAKPUR

(HONG ZI LIANG)

It was only in death that one got to know what a fine journalist Nepal had lost in Uma Singh.

Working in the most lawless part of Nepal, Uma Singh was fearless with her written and spoken word. She reported in particular against violence and discrimination against women. She did this with a sense of immediacy and professionalism in radio and print and in three languages.

Uma Singh was committed to bring to book the Siraha-based Maoist cadre who had disappeared her father and brother during the war. She wrote the truth and she named names. The insecurity all around her in the past years seemed to make her all the more fearless.

Someone decided that she could not be allowed to live and on Sunday night a gang of barbarians entered her one-room dera and hacked her to death.

Ground-level journalism, especially in the lawless middle-eastern Tarai, takes guts these days. At the frontlines are reporters and editors who wage a daily struggle amidst relentless political instability. Our nation wide FM radio revolution has filled the airwaves with energetic discourse, their print colleagues constantly push the envelope. Uma Singh was one of the best among them, a journalist who understood her calling intuitively and deeply.

Singh's murder must push us to oppose the infrastructure of violence and impunity in Nepal, which has put innocent citizens in the line of fire. By extinguishing a journalist, the criminals have violated the public's right to know.

The Maoist leadership, it has to be said, set a sad example by serving as a role model for opportunists who seek to use violence to various ends, by having given violence a cruel sheen of political respectability. We must demand from those who lead the government today that they transform into practitioners of democratic politics. We ask them to publicly renounce violence as a political tool.

And yet, an elected prime minister threatens armed revolt. Against whom?

Even in death, Uma Singh will continue to inspire more young women and men to take up journalism because Nepalis now know the vital need for free media. The pull of good journalism has become irresistible, because free media can assure the public that the future can be better than our past by enabling an accountable government.

In the other direction, in the meek submission to violence and the appeasement of those who continue to use it to get their way, lies statis, silence and the feudocratic state.

After we emerge from mourning the tragic circumstance of her passing, Uma Singh will shine like a beacon to those who will become tomorrow's committed young journalists. She is the true exemplar.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 Sunday Magazine ~~ February 08, 2009

THE OTHER HALF

Requiem for Uma Singh

By KALPANA SHARMA

In Nepal, despite the now-flourishing democracy and freedom of press, the price of not toeing the political line set up by armed militias is often death.

 Paying a heavy price: Uma Singh

Whenever we in India use the phrase “neighbouring country”, we refer to Pakistan. We forget that there are other neighbours. Nepal, for instance, our northern neighbour, a country that has gone through immense political convulsions in the last three years, has faced decades of internal war and conflict, and is emerging now as a tentative democracy.

The press in Nepal has reported fearlessly through this difficult period. It has known the curbs on freedom. It is now relishing a release from past curbs that only a democracy can guarantee.

Other threats

Yet, despite democracy, the press in Nepal faces a more serious threat, that of violent attacks by dozens of armed groups that continue to flourish with impunity. As a result, those who do not toe the political line set by such groups end up paying a heavy price. One such was 26-year-old radio journalist Uma Singh, who was hacked to death by over 15 men in her home in Janakpur on January 11, 2009.

A recent visit to Kathmandu revealed how strongly a cross-section of journalists there feels about Uma’s brutal murder. Yet little is known in this country about it. In fact, little is reported about the developments in Nepal unless there is an India angle.

Uma was one of a growing breed of independent-minded journalists in Nepal. Unlike India, FM radio in Nepal is an important part of the media scene as it covers politics and current events and not just popular music. Uma reported for Janakpur Today FM radio and also wrote columns in print media. According to her fellow journalists she was fearless in reporting social and political crimes.

Uma Singh lived and worked in the southeastern Tarai region of Nepal bordering India, and reported on problems specific to that region such as the dowry system and caste discrimination. At one point, she was forced to move house because of the threats she received for some of her writing.

Uma Singh belonged to a wealthy landowning family in the Tarai. Three years ago, Maoists kidnapped her father and brother. They have not been seen since and are presumed dead. Uma was determined to track down the perpetrators of that crime. Since her murder, an attempt is being made to dilute the seriousness of the crime by passing it off as a property dispute between members of her family. Yet, the threat she posed was not because she was involved in a family dispute over property but because she did not hesitate to speak plainly about political crimes, including the one involving her family. Nor was she cautious about taking on those close to the people now ruling Nepal. A neighbour, who heard her cries for help when she was attacked, overheard one of the killers saying, “This is for writing so much.”

Uma wrote about violence and discrimination against women. In an interview that she gave last year, she speaks of the challenges facing a journalist and a woman journalist in particular. She talks of how the different armed groups target journalists, demand that they air certain news and not report other news. . “If we don’t air the news, they threaten to kill us”, she says. As a result, she says, “We have been compelled to dance to their tune”. Compounding the problems of journalists, she says, is the fact that women in Nepali society are not accepted as equals. “They say the work we have been doing is not good”, she says in the interview.

Uma Singh was hoping to move to Kathmandu where the presence of national and international media would possibly have given her some protection. Before she could make that important move, she was murdered. She is the first woman journalist to be killed in Nepal; over a dozen male journalists have been killed in the last years.

Blurred boundaries

Uma’s life and death are an illustration of what happens, even within a democracy, when the line between politics and criminality gets blurred. We know this well in India and see it even in States where there is no armed conflict. Those who live in areas of protracted conflict, like Kashmir or the Northeast, understand the reality of reporting under the gaze of multiple armed groups, State and non-State.

Her death also reminds us that the media’s job is to report, not to censor. For instance, some people chose to dismiss the despicable incident in Mangalore in January as “media hype”. Yet, the images of the young women being assaulted were not manufactured even if they were telecast repeatedly. They were real. What Uma Singh reported was not a figment of her imagination. It was also real, perhaps too real.

Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal magazine and one of the leading and most outspoken journalists in Nepal, writes in his tribute to Uma Singh in Republica ( www.myrepublica.com):
Amidst obscure yet widespread threats, the journalist is asked to remain brave and principled. All over the country, we have journalists like the late Uma Singh. In her dedication, courage and professionalism, she represents the strides journalism has taken since 1990, using the fundamental freedoms to bring pluralism to the people. Never ending, this path to journalistic independence and professionalism is a continuous journey, and Uma Singh understood the dangers amidst the all-pervading impunity. She knew that she worked in the most dangerous part of the country, but she would not remain silent. She knew that independent journalism was important for the radio-listeners and newspaper readers she served. Uma Singh died alone and amidst horrific cruelty, a fighter for democracy.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

  Nepal ~~ January 21 2009

Independent press: Learning from Uma  

By  KANAK MANI DIXIT
Press freedom is in a perilous state today, and the danger lies in self-censorship. The countrywide spread over the past two decades of energetic print and radio journalism is threatened, with the district journalists facing challenges from violence-prone forces. For the most part, these are the militants in the mid-eastern Tarai and Maoist cadre all over. In a society where good experiments tend to be destroyed as soon as they start to succeed, we are witnessing a rollback of free media. If not halted, this journey will take us back to the silence of the Panchayat era, with all attendant political, social and economic ills.

It is not that there are anti-media ordinances and military jackboots in editorial offices, which was King Gyanendra’s way in February 2005. The threat now is more insidious, with the reporters and editors working amidst an infrastructure of impunity and absence of accountability that is more entrenched than ever before. Those whose job it is to write and report are doubly in danger where there is no rule of law, as the Maoists engage reluctantly with open society. Journalism is like a canary sent down the mine shaft, and our editors and reporters are beginning to feel the asphyxiation. Rather than succumb, we are asked to sound the alarm and stand up to anarchy and creeping authoritarianism.

It was much easier to fight the ham-handed autocrat king. With the Maoists in power through the ballot, their cadre feel that they have been justified in their violence and their ´people´s war´, and the leadership does not have the moral strength to disabuse them of the notion. Among genuine Maoist cadre – for they exist amidst the mass of opportunists who have signed up – there is the belief that the journalist stands in the way of change. They have been taught that journalism can never be independent and must be part of the effort to fight a class war as directed by the party.

Five journalists around the country presently face credible death threats, and the sense of insecurity in the districts is much more palpable than in Kathmandu Valley. A senior editor was recently asked pointedly and ominously, "How long do we have to suffer this indignity of criticism. Tell us, kati samma sahera basne hamilay?"

As per their politico-military training, Maoists workers as a whole continue to regard those who disagree with them as the enemy, and the critic can variously be labeled feudal, anti-people, anti-national. The leadership has done little to change this self-serving mindset, and so cadres everywhere feel confident in exhibiting hostility. If a sense of fear can be created leading to self-censorship, then regardless of what this does to the image of the party it can be useful for developing a pliant society. But the matter may spiral out of even Maoist control, for the party´s attitude towards media is being internalized by violent groups in the mid-western Tarai and elsewhere.

Amidst the violence-puja that has overtaken the country, who we had thought represented ‘civil society’ are yet to awake to the dangers, the business community seeks accommodation amidst rampant extortion, and the state administration and security mechanisms are subdued by the extremist sloganeering of Maoist leaders and ministers. For now, the journalist, human rights defender, local politician and activist stand at the frontline on behalf of the citizenry, vulnerable amidst daily threats and intimidations, beatings and attacks. Everyone understands that the attacks on the media are meant to send a message to the rest. Everyone also understands that the fall of free media will be a harbinger of years of unrest, derailment of governance, crash of the economy, and pushback of development.

There is cause for alarm, but there is also some reason for hope. Past experience tells us that if the societal vanguard all over stands firm against the anti-democratic onslaught, the Maoists are ‘political’ enough to pull back. A countrywide stand on press freedom is bound to force the Maoists to convert, if only to ensure their own political longevity. It is unfortunate that the journalist has to serve as guinea pig for the purpose.

A death in Janakpur
There is unplanned sophistication in the way the media is challenged today, as surely there is no central directive that the journalist be hounded, bashed up or murdered. But the party workers are groomed to be violent, and in large parts they are hardly acting on ideology or principle, but on the basis of competition for spoils locally, or clan and even family-based friction.

When an attack on a journalist makes news, the party makes full use of plausible deniability even while benefiting from the fear that is established. The strategic response is to first vehemently deny the party’s involvement, then to claim that the culprits are in fact ex-Maoists, to follow with the suggestion that the accused are party workers acting outside of high command directives. If the clamor still does not subside, promise an in-house investigation, and in the last resort go through the motions of expulsion from the party. Never speak of rule of law, and try your best to sabotage police investigation and court process.

In early January, radio and print journalist Uma Singh was murdered brutally in Janakpur. There is every indication that her life was snuffed out because – unprotected by the cover of national and international attention that her seniors in the capital receive – she chose to speak up. She was on a trajectory towards national recognition. Similarly unprotected and killed recently in the line of duty were journalists Birendra Shah and JP Joshi. In each case, there has been local level Maoist involvement of one form or another.

When asked about the thrashing of media workers in the newsroom of one media house, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal makes light of it, pointing out that no one in fact died. When Uma Singh was murdered, he cites the example of South Africa where, he says, so many more had died in the post-conflict transitional phase than in Nepal. Nepali journalists do protest too much, he seemed to say, and in an address to the nation just the other day he demanded ´positive coverage´. This is a primitive understanding of the role of media, reminiscent of the Panchayat era, which was jettisoned by the rest of society in 1990. When the Lalitpur district administration released on bail the two leaders of a Maoist gang that had beaten up journalists, the party greeted them like victors, with flowers and vermilion. Meanwhile, the minister of information accused journalists of denigrating Nepali nationalism before the world, implying that the Maoists are the sole custodians of national honor and sovereignty.

One would expect a democratically elected government to rush to investigate attacks on journalists, the media being the bellwether of social distress. But the government happens to be led by a party whose leaders in internal conclaves expound on the need to destroy before building anew. Before the representatives of the Western world, Prime Minister Dahal is eloquent in his defense of press freedom and pluralism, and certainly the leadership will sign on any dotted line to underline its commitment. But listen to what Mr. Dahal tells his cadre: that journalism has no purpose but to serve ‘the people’, as defined by the party of course.

For all these reasons, the government is less than half-hearted in investigations of attacks on media, and bestirs itself only when the Federation of Nepalese Journalists is able to generate a powerful campaign for press freedom and security for journalists. Against such a backdrop, given the importance of a transformed Maoist party that abandons violence, the only way out is to stay the course of independent journalism and force the Maoists to accept the world’s definition of free media.

The outside world
The journalism that reaches our citizenry is overwhelmingly in the Nepali language, and the editors and reporters themselves are not savvy in English. This is one reason the vibrancy of the media landscape is not appreciated enough by the outside world, and so the perception of threat is also one step removed. The urgency felt by the journalist does not transfer easily to the donor and diplomat, who have such inordinate influence over Nepali society. But it is also true that the Nepali media has not been concentrating on international outreach, because our universe is our national landscape. The battle for pluralism and free media, after all, is not fought so as to make us look good to others, but for the sake of freedom, political stability and socio-economic progress within Nepal.

Those who would pass prescriptions on Nepal´s road to lasting peace and democracy need to know that there can be no peace without democracy. And there are no ´Asian values´ versions of democracy and press freedom: both must be absolute. Also, there has to be better appreciation of the fact that Nepal´s citizenry is already experienced in the pluralistic state, and through the People’s Movement of April 2006 indicated its deep understanding of the link between democracy and peace.

And this people’s understanding is what impels journalists today to challenge the Maoists’ comprehension of ‘new Nepal’. We know to be careful not to push the ex-rebels against the wall of international condemnation, but to pull them – unwillingly for the most part, it seems – into the democratic mainstream as a party that did come to power through the ballot. This is where the countrywide network of journalists confronts the countrywide network of Maoist cadre today. One holds the pen, the other the baton.

Amidst obscure yet widespread threats, the journalist is asked to remain brave and principled. All over the country, we have journalists like the late Uma Singh. In her dedication, courage and professionalism, she represents the strides journalism has taken since 1990, using the fundamental freedoms to bring pluralism to the people. Never ending, this path to journalistic independence and professionalism is a continuous journey, and Uma Singh understood the dangers amidst the all-pervading impunity. She knew that she worked in the most dangerous part of the country, but she would not remain silent. She knew that independent journalism was important for the radio-listeners and newspaper readers she served. Uma Singh died alone and amidst horrific cruelty, a fighter for democracy.


Nepal is a country of deep injustices but its citizens have a long history of civil behavior. There are things that remain to be done, but let no one believe that we can proceed in the absence of full-fledged democracy. No ´Asian values´ compromises can be made. The adversary of press freedom hides behind the wall of deniability, which must be brought down. For, if the mast of journalism falls, so will the other pillars of society in quick succession, and that is the path back to authoritarianism. And we had thought we had been there, done that.
 

Flame of truth

By KANAK MANI DIXIT in JANAKPUR

(HONG ZI LIANG)

It was only in death that one got to know what a fine journalist Nepal had lost in Uma Singh.

Working in the most lawless part of Nepal, Uma Singh was fearless with her written and spoken word. She reported in particular against violence and discrimination against women. She did this with a sense of immediacy and professionalism in radio and print and in three languages.

Uma Singh was committed to bring to book the Siraha-based Maoist cadre who had disappeared her father and brother during the war. She wrote the truth and she named names. The insecurity all around her in the past years seemed to make her all the more fearless.

Someone decided that she could not be allowed to live and on Sunday night a gang of barbarians entered her one-room dera and hacked her to death.

Ground-level journalism, especially in the lawless middle-eastern Tarai, takes guts these days. At the frontlines are reporters and editors who wage a daily struggle amidst relentless political instability. Our nation wide FM radio revolution has filled the airwaves with energetic discourse, their print colleagues constantly push the envelope. Uma Singh was one of the best among them, a journalist who understood her calling intuitively and deeply.

Singh's murder must push us to oppose the infrastructure of violence and impunity in Nepal, which has put innocent citizens in the line of fire. By extinguishing a journalist, the criminals have violated the public's right to know.

The Maoist leadership, it has to be said, set a sad example by serving as a role model for opportunists who seek to use violence to various ends, by having given violence a cruel sheen of political respectability. We must demand from those who lead the government today that they transform into practitioners of democratic politics. We ask them to publicly renounce violence as a political tool.

And yet, an elected prime minister threatens armed revolt. Against whom?

Even in death, Uma Singh will continue to inspire more young women and men to take up journalism because Nepalis now know the vital need for free media. The pull of good journalism has become irresistible, because free media can assure the public that the future can be better than our past by enabling an accountable government.

In the other direction, in the meek submission to violence and the appeasement of those who continue to use it to get their way, lies statis, silence and the feudocratic state.

After we emerge from mourning the tragic circumstance of her passing, Uma Singh will shine like a beacon to those who will become tomorrow's committed young journalists. She is the true exemplar.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
 Sunday Magazine ~~ February 08, 2009

THE OTHER HALF

Requiem for Uma Singh

By KALPANA SHARMA

In Nepal, despite the now-flourishing democracy and freedom of press, the price of not toeing the political line set up by armed militias is often death.

 Paying a heavy price: Uma Singh

Whenever we in India use the phrase “neighbouring country”, we refer to Pakistan. We forget that there are other neighbours. Nepal, for instance, our northern neighbour, a country that has gone through immense political convulsions in the last three years, has faced decades of internal war and conflict, and is emerging now as a tentative democracy.

The press in Nepal has reported fearlessly through this difficult period. It has known the curbs on freedom. It is now relishing a release from past curbs that only a democracy can guarantee.

Other threats

Yet, despite democracy, the press in Nepal faces a more serious threat, that of violent attacks by dozens of armed groups that continue to flourish with impunity. As a result, those who do not toe the political line set by such groups end up paying a heavy price. One such was 26-year-old radio journalist Uma Singh, who was hacked to death by over 15 men in her home in Janakpur on January 11, 2009.

A recent visit to Kathmandu revealed how strongly a cross-section of journalists there feels about Uma’s brutal murder. Yet little is known in this country about it. In fact, little is reported about the developments in Nepal unless there is an India angle.

Uma was one of a growing breed of independent-minded journalists in Nepal. Unlike India, FM radio in Nepal is an important part of the media scene as it covers politics and current events and not just popular music. Uma reported for Janakpur Today FM radio and also wrote columns in print media. According to her fellow journalists she was fearless in reporting social and political crimes.

Uma Singh lived and worked in the southeastern Tarai region of Nepal bordering India, and reported on problems specific to that region such as the dowry system and caste discrimination. At one point, she was forced to move house because of the threats she received for some of her writing.

Uma Singh belonged to a wealthy landowning family in the Tarai. Three years ago, Maoists kidnapped her father and brother. They have not been seen since and are presumed dead. Uma was determined to track down the perpetrators of that crime. Since her murder, an attempt is being made to dilute the seriousness of the crime by passing it off as a property dispute between members of her family. Yet, the threat she posed was not because she was involved in a family dispute over property but because she did not hesitate to speak plainly about political crimes, including the one involving her family. Nor was she cautious about taking on those close to the people now ruling Nepal. A neighbour, who heard her cries for help when she was attacked, overheard one of the killers saying, “This is for writing so much.”

Uma wrote about violence and discrimination against women. In an interview that she gave last year, she speaks of the challenges facing a journalist and a woman journalist in particular. She talks of how the different armed groups target journalists, demand that they air certain news and not report other news. . “If we don’t air the news, they threaten to kill us”, she says. As a result, she says, “We have been compelled to dance to their tune”. Compounding the problems of journalists, she says, is the fact that women in Nepali society are not accepted as equals. “They say the work we have been doing is not good”, she says in the interview.

Uma Singh was hoping to move to Kathmandu where the presence of national and international media would possibly have given her some protection. Before she could make that important move, she was murdered. She is the first woman journalist to be killed in Nepal; over a dozen male journalists have been killed in the last years.

Blurred boundaries

Uma’s life and death are an illustration of what happens, even within a democracy, when the line between politics and criminality gets blurred. We know this well in India and see it even in States where there is no armed conflict. Those who live in areas of protracted conflict, like Kashmir or the Northeast, understand the reality of reporting under the gaze of multiple armed groups, State and non-State.

Her death also reminds us that the media’s job is to report, not to censor. For instance, some people chose to dismiss the despicable incident in Mangalore in January as “media hype”. Yet, the images of the young women being assaulted were not manufactured even if they were telecast repeatedly. They were real. What Uma Singh reported was not a figment of her imagination. It was also real, perhaps too real.

Kanak Mani Dixit, editor of Himal magazine and one of the leading and most outspoken journalists in Nepal, writes in his tribute to Uma Singh in Republica ( www.myrepublica.com):
Amidst obscure yet widespread threats, the journalist is asked to remain brave and principled. All over the country, we have journalists like the late Uma Singh. In her dedication, courage and professionalism, she represents the strides journalism has taken since 1990, using the fundamental freedoms to bring pluralism to the people. Never ending, this path to journalistic independence and professionalism is a continuous journey, and Uma Singh understood the dangers amidst the all-pervading impunity. She knew that she worked in the most dangerous part of the country, but she would not remain silent. She knew that independent journalism was important for the radio-listeners and newspaper readers she served. Uma Singh died alone and amidst horrific cruelty, a fighter for democracy.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~