Nepalese newspapers lose freedom but not their bite

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UNTIL LAST week, Nepal had a lively and relatively free press often critical of the government, but when King Gyanendra seized absolute power last week he declared a state of emergency and "suspended" freedom of speech. A six-month ban has been announced on news reports, interviews and commentaries that are deemed to be against the "letter and spirit" of the King's proclamation that he was seizing power.

But the evidence is that while Nepal's press may have been shorn of its freedom it has not lost its sense of humour and it can still bite. Forbidden to comment on the most dramatic events in Nepal since the royal massacre of 2001, the Kathmandu Post instead devoted its leader to the most banal and irrelevant subject it could think of. "Different colours of socks are available on the market," the newspaper noted. The editorial began "Socks are indispensable ..." and continued for paragraph after paragraph on socks and their importance in Nepalese society.

But there was perhaps more to the editorial than pure facetiousness. It went on to decry those who wear "the same pair of socks day in and day out, not even bothering to assess the detrimental effect of the overpowering stench". and asked: "Isn't it a direct violation of human rights?"

King Gyanendra has been widely criticised by Nepalese and international human rights organisations for "suspending" basic human rights including the freedom of thought. Other recent editorials in the Post have been in praise of sunshine and cream; the sun and the cream are the symbols of Nepal's two largest political parties.

A picture on the front page showed a statue from the temple to the Hindu god Vishnu covered with pigeon droppings. There was no clear reason for printing the picture but some cynical observers have noted the coincidence that devout Nepalese Hindus believe the King is an incarnation of Vishnu.

The Nepali Times, the country's pre-eminent weekly, devoted a column to the subject of rats fleeing a sinking ship, recounting a highly dubious anecdote about a rat which is supposed to have got inside the trousers of a Kathmandu cook.

In an allusion to Nepalese television being off the air for much of last week and Nepalis being left with only the international cable news channels to keep them abreast of news, the column list the most abstruse news items from the far corners of the globe, including "captains of industry met in Davos and some of them slipped on ice in the sidewalk outside their hotel".

Yesterday's Kathmandu Post had no editorial, perhaps a sign that the royal censors have caught up with the journalists. A front-page item on the victims of a drink-driving accident some time ago seemed out of place, but then, King Gyanendra's son, Crown Prince Paras, is alleged to have killed four people in drink-driving accidents.