King of Nepal orders news blackout

Days after seizing power, King Gyandendra moved on Thursday to tighten his grip over Nepal by clamping down on the media—issuing a ban on independent news broadcasts and threatening to punish newspapers for reports that run counter to the official monarchist line.

A government edict, printed in the state-run newspaper Gorkhapatra, said any news outlet publishing reports critical of “the spirit of the royal proclamation” will be met with punishment. The order, which also bans news reports seen as supporting the rebels, will remain in effect for six months.

A similar announcement on state radio said private radio stations will no longer be allowed to broadcast any news or opinion. All broadcasts are to remain “purely entertainment”, the statement said.

Meanwhile, the news blackout and a cut in internet and phone services that accompanied Tuesday’s declaration of a state of emergency apparently thwarted a call by Maoist rebels for a nationwide strike on Thursday, with most people saying they weren’t aware of the guerrilla announcement.

Worried its opponents might try to marshal support for protests against the king, the government has sent soldiers to many newspapers and TV stations to censor news reports.

Despite the clampdown, a few small demonstrations sprang up on Thursday in Katmandu.
Several groups of 20 or so protesters gathered to shout slogans protesting the king’s power grab. They were quickly dispersed by baton-wielding police, and there were no reports of arrests.

Little excitement in capital

For the most part, though, life appears normal in the capital, Katmandu.

Rebel demands for a general strike usually bring the country to a near shutdown, with residents staying home out of fear of reprisals by guerrillas. But while traffic was lighter than normal in this crowded city, cars still filled the streets and most shops were open.

“We’d heard something about a strike a few days back, but we haven’t heard anything lately,” said taxi driver Durga Poudel. “So that’s why most of us are out on the streets.”

While news was not available from the rest of the country, long-distance bus drivers said at least one highway—the main road from Katmandu toward China—had been blocked by the insurgents.

The Maoists, inspired by Chinese revolutionary leader Mao Zedong, have gained control of much of rural Nepal since 1996 when they launched their campaign to replace the monarchy with communist rule. More than 10 500 people have died in the fighting.

The king on Tuesday dismissed an interim government, accusing it of failing to control the insurgency or to hold parliamentary elections, taking power for himself and largely shutting the country off from the rest of the world. He said he will hold the reins for the next three years.

Gyanendra’s new government said on Wednesday it will reach out to the Maoists to renew peace talks. The announcement came shortly after the king appointed a new 10-member Cabinet heavily dominated by his own backers.

The Maoists broke off peace talks in August 2003. The rebels balked at later invitations from the government of ousted prime minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to renew the talks, insisting that real authority remained in the hands of the king.

This week’s developments in Nepal’s constitutional monarchy were a throwback to the era of absolute power enjoyed by the royals before King Birendra, Gyanendra’s elder brother, introduced democracy in 1990.

The king has suspended freedom of the press, speech and expression, and the right to peaceful assembly, privacy, and freedom from preventive detention.

It was the king’s second such power grab in nearly as many years. He also fired Deuba as prime minister in 2002, sparking mass protests demanding the restoration of an elected government. He reinstated Deuba last year with the task of holding elections by next month and conducting peace talks with the rebels.

Nepal has been in turmoil since Gyanendra (55) assumed the crown in 2001 after his brother, Birendra, was gunned down in a palace massacre apparently committed by Birendra’s son, the crown prince, who also died.

Riots shook Katmandu after the killings and fighting intensified between government forces and the rebels.—Sapa-AP

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