Strongman rule

As Nepal’s new Civil and Criminal Code Acts came into effect on Friday, fears were raised that Nepal’s strongmen rulers could misuse clauses in it to crush political dissent, muzzle the media, or punish doctors.

Particularly worrying are clauses that are subject to interpretation and can be used by present and future authorities to send journalists to jail for breach of privacy or defamation, or punish doctors whose patients die during treatment.

People found guilty of unauthorised listening to or recording private conversations can be imprisoned up to two years or fined Rs20,000, or both. People found guilty of taking, selling or circulating pictures of a person without his or her consent can be imprisoned up to three years and/or fined Rs30,000.

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Shiva Gaunle at the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) Nepal says the people’s right to privacy must be respected, but there should be exceptions if recordings and photos are of public figures for use in the media. “The new Criminal Code Act will prevent investigative journalists from doing their job,” he says.

If these new laws had been enacted a few months ago, for instance, Prime Minister KP Oli and NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal could have put editors behind bars for publishing the picture in which they were seen eating lunch with Durga Prasain, the owner of B&C Hospital in Jhapa.

The private photo was posted on Facebook, but it was visual proof of a nexus between Nepal’s two top leaders with a businessman lobbying for a bill that would have allowed him to run a private medical college.

Article 307 (1) of the Criminal Code Act also allows the court to imprison people guilty of character assassination for up to two years. But if the defamation is in the mass media, the journalist can be jailed for one more year. Senior Advocate Satish Krishna Kharel says: “This is proof that the new laws can be used to restrain the media.”

Doctors found guilty of negligence leading to the death of a patient can also now be sent to jail for up to five years. Kharel says the new laws are even more dangerous because government attorney can now file cases against any doctor. The accused will then be jailed until proven innocent.

The new law has also watered down some stringent provisions aimed at tackling violence against women. For example, a husband guilty of raping his wife used to have a 3-5 year jail term. Now, the law says he can be jailed for ‘up to five years’ – leaving a loophole for a lighter sentence.

The new Code will replace Nepal’s 55-year-old Muluki Ain, and does have some positive points: 

-Bans menstrual banishment

-Increases the minimum age of marriage to 20

-Interprets sex with persons younger than 18 as rape even if consensual

-Criminalises torture

-Punishes abetment to suicide

-Discourages dowry