Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"Campaign for media freedom should not stop"

By T. P. Mishra
"Dai, Namaste! how are you doing these days? As I am quite busy at my studies I am really unable to contribute a good volume of news reports from camps for TBR. But our campaign for the establishment of complete media freedom in Bhutan should not stop."

I still remember these sentences spoken to me by Shanti Ram Acharya in front of the ration go-down in Beldangi-II camp in the mid-2005, I forgot the month and date. That time I was just working as a special correspondent for The Bhutan Reporter (TBR) monthly, which publishes from Kathmandu, Nepal.

Now as the Editor cum Publisher of TBR I would like to stand on the side of Shanti Ram Acharya, on my personal and on behalf of TBR family. Acharya, who worked in this monthly newspaper, though for a period of six months in 2005 was a simple, dedicated and hardworking youth to my knowledge.

He was arrested by the Bhutan police on January 16, 2007 in Tashilakha area in charge of being the member of non-existent Communist Party of Bhutan. His arrest was made public only on January 21 through the state-owned Kuensel. His family members maintain that Shanti Ram might have gone to Bhutan to visit relatives, though was not informed to them.

Our lobby to international rights groups, in particular media bodies, to help exert pressure on Druk regime for his unconditional and early release went in vain. In this regard, however, we (press freedom campaigners/activists in exile) never consider ourselves as failed ones but ironically it implies the meaning that the concerned international media groups could not do anything on Acharya's favor.

A number of stories published by the UK-based Media Helping Media ( calling the international rights and media bodies to mount pressure on Druk regime for his early and unconditional release is a strong evidence to this.
It is sad that of late he has been declared a jail term of seven years and six months by the Bhutanese authority. On the day I received this information, a number of questions occupied good space in my minds.

That night I asked myself; where are international human rights and media groups? Is Shanti Ram a Maoist militant? Or is he a Maoist-made innocent youth? Why doesn't he be called a journalist by looking at his background? Is he suffering simply because he is a refugee? The more I sat, the further questions hit my mind.

I opened my desktop in the mid-night and saw the document, said to be the Court Order. Some sentences reads, "The Court granted full opportunity and thoroughly considered the explanations made by the defendant concerning the guilty plea. He was given full opportunity to make all his submissions, which were given the utmost consideration. The Court awards seven years and six months imprisonment term in total to the defendant Shanti Ram Acharya, resident of Beldangi II, Sector D/1, Hut No.85, Jhapa, Nepal in accordance with §§ 127, 134, 329 and 330 of the Penal Code and § 211 of the Civil and Criminal Procedure Code from the day he was arrested for the charges against him that have been proven."

How can the Bhutanese court say that he was granted full opportunity to plea since the judiciary system in the country is still under the strict control of government? Thus, we can undoubtedly say that the basic norms to fair trail on the part of Acharya were a far cry.

There are no any logical points to term Acharya a Maoist militant. The first of such reasons is; the Communist Party of Bhutan (CPB-MLM), issuing a press statement after his arrest, strongly refuted his affiliation to their party.

Secondly, his nature, in accordance with his family members seems he is rather a journalist, if not at all, but having a keep interest in this sector. He worked at TBR for six months and was subsequently working at Jagaran fortnightly, a Nepali-language newspaper published inside refugee camps. He is also the founding editor for Baal Aawaj (voice of children), a children-related wall newspaper.

Thirdly, a sentence from the court order reads "After his (Shanti Ram) brother came to know that he had joined the Bhutan Communist Party, their relation was strained, as his brother scolded him for joining BCP." Shanti Ram's brother, however, defends this very strongly.

"He (Shanti Ram) always used to read newspapers and sometimes I too found his news and write-ups in refugee-run newspapers. I believe he was just a new media practitioner", he says, adding- "How our relation could be strained?"

We are left with no alternatives then to call international rights and media bodies to exert pressure on Druk regime, help create a free atmosphere for his plea in defend to false allegations clamped upon him.

Shanti Ram, we never lose our hopes for the complete establishment of media freedom in Bhutan, a dream even you have had.

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