Gagging the press in installments

UNDERPASS: It looks like you forgot that there is now a new law that forbids disclosure of the private information of public officials. Vatsyayan in Kantipur, 25 August

It has only been two weeks since Nepal’s new Penal Code criminalised photography (Section 295), slapped heavy fines and jail terms for recording conversations (Section 293), and announced strict punishment for sending, receiving or using online data (Section 298). Another privacy-related bill in Parliament will prohibit people from publishing personal information of public officials. But it has already had a chilling effect across the Nepali media.

A person who ridiculed the prime minister on Facebook was tracked down and arrested for photo-manipulating the prime minister's photo, which violates Section 295 of the Code. Editors of Nagarik, Annapurna Post and Kantipur were summoned to the Press Council for interrogation.

Photojournalist Usha Titikshu was taking a photo of a damaged CCTV camera at an airport recently, when she was stopped. “Don’t you know the new rules about not taking photos?” she was warned.

If enacted earlier, the new laws would have forced editors to spike their recent investigative reports on the Chief Justice’s doctored certificates, photos showing collusion between top politicians and medical college owners, and stories of corruption in high places.

The Federation of Nepalese Journalists last week issued its Godavari Declaration demanding that the provisions be immediately rescinded. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Borders (RSF) and others all condemned the move, demanding that Nepal adhere to the international standards and principles of freedom of expression.

Although the constitution guarantees press freedom as an inviolable right, the laws try to enforce constitutional provisions protecting a citizen’s right to privacy more strictly, even extending it to public figures.

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Press adviser to the prime minister and former editor Kundan Aryal admits that a free press is important, but says the Nepali media has failed to self-regulate.

"Journalists do not rein themselves in, they feel free to make derogatory comments, especially about women. It is necessary to regulate the press,” he told Nepali Times

Such talk has already had a dampening effect, with editors and reporters now more wary of publishing information in the public interest. The fear is that the laws are so broadly defined and open to interpretation, anyone can be hauled over for anything.

The crackdowns started coming thick and fast after the Nepal Communist Party government was elected to power in January: it consolidated the surveillance arms of the state in the PMO, proposed restrictions on advocacy through the National Integrity Policy, and banned popular areas for protest. 

Photographer Chandra Ale of Onlinekhabar recently faced questions when he was at Kalimati vegetable market where traders had locked up government inspectors. “A person asked me if I had permission to take photos. He followed me, and forced me to delete my pictures,” Ale relates.

Photojournalist Usha Titikshu thinks there is a systematic plan to gag the media. “Threats to journalists are more common across South Asia, and we have not connected the dots to see that the same is happening in Nepal,” says Titikshu, citing the rape and deaths of journalists in India and the arrest of noted Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam who is being mistreated in jail. “We see our own government moving towards similar intolerance in Nepal.”

Ujjwal Acharya, South Asia coordinator of IFJ and digital media watcher says: “Today one thinks twice before posting anything on social media. By the looks of it, the government intends to curtail all kinds of expression, especially investigative journalism.”

Says Nagarik editor Gunaraj Luintel who answered an unprecedented summon from the Press Council: “It was overstepping its mandate, even asking me to explain a mistake in print to the parties involved. The council is only supposed to promote ethical journalism, but it has become an arm of the government. The aim is to increase censorship in a planned way.”

Narayan Wagle, editor of Kantipur, was also summoned by the Press Council for the first time in his 30-year career, and says the it has outlived its usefulness.

“The practice in democratic countries is that the government does not monitor the press. The press monitors itself through a code of ethics. But in Nepal, a new law about the Press Council is in the offing, which proves the government wants to further tighten the noose around the press.”

Bikas Karki, president of Photo Journalists’ Club, agrees that the government’s real intention is control: “The Constitution has become like the elephant’s tusks, it is there just for show. The laws are the real teeth inside, which bite.”

Nepal has gone through censorship before. The Panchayat system banned political parties, and the royal palace strictly controlled the press. In 2005, King Gyanendra tried to take the country back to those dark days. Some say the new Code is even worse than the Panchayat.

“There were threats then, but they were verbal or even unspoken,” recalls photojournalist Gopal Chitrakar, who started out at Gorkhapatra during the Pancahayat. “I don’t remember such draconian measures. These new rules are in writing, they are backed by the law. That gives them legitimacy which is more dangerous.” 

Kundan Aryal reassured us that the Code and laws can always be amended. But this does not convince journalists who say the laws that restrict media freedom are inherently anti-democratic, unconstitutional and remove its check-and-balance function. Laws that are broadly defined are even more dangerous, and can be a path to authoritarianism.

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The right to say the emperor is naked

Satire flourishes best and is most prolific when there are controls on free speech, and Haribansa Acharya should know. He says he performed his most fulfilling and creative skits during the Panchayat.

“Saying ‘17 Sal’ out loud was banned, since it was the year of King Mahendra’s coup. So we got away by saying ‘the year between 16 and 18’,” remembers Acharya. “We also called Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa ‘Gham’ instead of Surya. We played cat and mouse with the censors, and it was more fun and creative. Today’s satire seems to lack that art.”

Satire, in fact, seems less necessary when there is full freedom, but it is a lifeline during restrictive times. Even during the absolutist Rana and Shah reigns, the royals knew citizens needed to let off a little steam. So, they allowed one day in a year on Gai Jatra (on 27 August this year)when people had freedom to say anything.

Culture expert Tejeswor Babu Gongah remembers Gai Jatra revelers burning an effigy of the Panchayat, an act that would have people locked up on any other day of the year.

"Humour is one space where you can raise issues that you cannot elsewhere, therein lies its power to question authority,” he adds.

Some have noted that this year’s Gai Jatra seemed subdued, with fewer shows. On social media, there were comments that satirists had already started self-censoring because of the new Criminal Code.

Satirist Manoj Gajurel, who has made a career out of lampooning kings, prime ministers and guerrilla commanders, says: “Humour has a social responsibility to carry the people’s message to authority when it refuses to listen to direct communication.”

However, an elected government now wants to take away that right of Nepalis to poke fun at power. Section 306 of the Code specifically prohibits ‘satire’ and categorises it under libel, and Section 295 prohibits caricatures.

“I feel a great sense of dread,” admits cartoonist Durga Baral, who went underground during the Panchayat but continued to produce cartoons under the pen-name Batsyayan, despite threats."Freedom of expression is our basic right, and if we are not free to speak out, it all gets bottled up inside.”

Nepali cartoonists are pushing back. Last week, Rabin Sayami drew a savage cartoon that tore the government to shreds over its callousness in not investigating the Kanchanpur rape case, and killing a protester. It depicted a smiling Pushpa Kamal Dahal and a smug Prime Minister Oli with a smoking gun in his hand (above). The rapist holds a bloody knife, and has his back turned. Two photos of the rape victim and a dead protester hang on the wall.

Sayami was warned by friends to be careful, and that he might be sent to jail. He says the cartoon was a test: “To see if we are still a democracy.”

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Code words

While Nepal's journalistic community is up in the arms about the latest Criminal Code, lawyer Madhav Basnet says it is not as worrying as perceived, for the following reasons:


  • The 1990 Constitution was the first one to clearly mention the right to privacy.
  • Nepal has a long history of laws against slander and libel, even in Jang Bahadur's Muluki Ain of 1853.
  • The Criminal Code does not specifically mention any profession like writers, journalists or photojournalists.
  • The conduct of journalists is covered by other laws related to the media, which remain unchanged. The Criminal Code mentions that it will not supersede laws relating to specific professions.
  • With social media, it is not just journalists and photographers who take photos, collect and disseminate information, but everyone. The Code is only prescribing limits for them.
  • The law, however, does apply to journalists if they are not transmitting through the mass media.
  • The Criminal Code is not the guarantor of freedom of expression, the Constitution is. That freedom is not without its limits, and the limits are also mentioned in the Constitution. However, nothing can take away that freedom. And if any law seems to infringe upon it, then there are Constitutional remedies.

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