Long shadows

SUP-PRESS: Journalists taking part in a rally on Tuesday ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May were stopped by barricades and riot police outside Parliament in Kathmandu. Pic: MIN RATNA BAJRACHARYA

The year since the Nepal Communist Party government came to power has seen a creeping squeeze on the media space, both on the Internet and in the mainstream press. The Civil and Criminal Codes first criminalised photos and cartoons that ridiculed politicians and then put official documents out of bounds for media.

Journalists have been arrested and ordinary citizens, including a singer, have been trolled and threatened for social media posts. Reporters without Borders ranked Nepal at 106 among 180 countries on its Press Freedom Index 2019, a six-point drop from last year.

The Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) says there were 58 violations of media freedom by the state last year. They included attacks, threats, abuse and even the disappearance of one journalist. FNJ this week submitted a letter to the co-chair of the ruling NCP, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, as well as to opposition leader Sher Bahadur Deuba, drawing their attention to the crackdowns. The nature and number of incidents have come down from the previous year, but legal challenges have increased, says FNJ general secretary Ramesh Bista.

“Journalists are being arrested through laws not designed for the media, but the Electronic Transaction Act, which usually applies to banking,” says Bista. “The government is preparing a draft for online content and an umbrella law for all media that includes provisions which could affect journalists in their work. We are very concerned about the negative impact this will have on the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression in Nepal.”

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Historically, Nepal has been a safe country for journalists since the end of the absolute monarchy, although there was a period in 2016 when reporters and editors were silenced. On paper, Nepal has some of the most progressive laws on press freedom, and is one of the few countries where the right to information is also applicable to politicians. However, these laws have been superseded by potentially draconian provisions that could allow the state to deny these rights.

“The Criminal Code of 2017 has criminalised the violation of privacy and prohibits investigating records and documents, which directly hampers the work of journalists. Individual privacy should be protected, but the law should not be applicable to public figures,” says Namrata Sharma, Chair of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, Nepal. “The Constitution prohibits acts or speech against national interest and sovereignty, and that can be used against journalists, which is a matter of great concern.”

Activists at a rally a few days ahead of World Press Freedom Day on 3 May said the ruling NCP’s attitude towards the media has been antagonistic. Minister of Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota has publicly derided media criticism of the government. A person who posted an unflattering, photo-shopped image of the prime minister online was arrested, singer Pashupati Sharma was forced to delete a music video on YouTube that ridiculed corruption, and Pokhara reporter Arjun Giri was arrested over a defamation complaint under the cybercrime law.

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