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NEPAL: Nepal's cartoonists say what reporters can't

With censors scrutinizing all the news reports ever since King Gyanendra took power, cartoonists are taking on topics that journalists must avoid

Taipei Times
Friday, March 11, 2005

Throttled by censorship, Nepal's newspapers have found a new way to get their message across to their readers -- cartoons.

Tough media censorship has been in place in Nepal since King Gyanendra took power on Feb. 1, declaring a state of emergency.

Military censors now watch over the publication of news reports, several journalists have been detained, and several newspapers in villages and smaller towns have been shut down.

But cartoonist Rajesh KC -- he uses initials for his last name -- is among a handful of cartoonists trying to illustrate with sketches what cannot be said in words. He works for the country's largest newspaper, Kantipur.

One recent cartoon showed three top leaders -- under house arrest for weeks, and unable to get haircuts -- trying to find a barber to trim their increasingly long hair.

Another showed family members jumping to grab the telephone when a bicycle bell rings outside -- an allusion to the snapping of telephone and Internet links for a week after the royal takeover.

The topics may not sound contentious but reporters have to avoid them.

"We have been able to do what journalists have been barred from doing. Our role has become much more important now and we owe it to our readers to get the messages to them," KC said.

"I have had to draw a line that I cannot cross. However, with every cartoon I feel I am getting bolder," he said.

The one issue he avoids is Nepal's security forces, which can be particularly sensitive to criticism. Army officials have warned him, he said, against drawing cartoons that would "hamper the morale."

Besides making fun of the government and illustrating its activities, the cartoonists also portrayed the difficulties faced by common people due to the recent blockade of highways by the Maoist rebels.

In the Katmandu newspaper Rajdhani, one recent cartoon showed a politician giving a speech inside his bedroom because public speeches are now banned, with another showing detained political leaders asking a soldier if they are allowed to give speeches in jail.

The cartoonists' work resonates strongly with readers.

"These days it seems the only ones who are brave enough to express [opinions] in newspapers are the cartoonists," said Prem Sharma, a court clerk.

In the early days of the takeover, soldiers were stationed in all the newspaper offices, deleting any material they thought was critical of the king or the government. The government later issued a directive to media companies saying they could not publish or broadcast anything against the king, the royal government and the security forces.

Cartoonists are the only ones who have not complied. One cartoon showed a journalist faxing his story and a government censor hiding under the table, reading the story as it is fed through the machine.

Another portrayed a father scolding his son for cutting apart the newspaper, with his wife explaining it was not the child's fault -- the newspaper itself had shrunk.

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