Requiem for Uma Singh

Posted on February 10, 2009

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http://www.hindu.com/mag/2009/02/08/stories/2009020850080300.htm

THE OTHER HALF

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.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com

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