Press under Pressure

When the other pillars of democracy fail to act as check and balance, the press has to step in to hold power to account

Illustration : BHANU BHATTARAI

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. When the other pillars of democracy fail to act as check and balance, the press has to step in to hold power to account.

Which is why authoritarian and elected autocrats around the world who have co-opted the judiciary, legislature and executive are now targeting the media. Journalists are surveilled, threatened and even murdered for doing their job.

The ill-gotten wealth of demagogues is mostly derived from licensing the exploitation of natural resources. Often, it is only investigative journalists who stand in the way of greed and ambition.

UNESCO’s theme for World Press Freedom Day this year is ‘Press for the Planet’. Climate breakdown, mining, or illegal logging are no longer just ‘environmental’ features — they are stories of political crime.

Nepal is one of the most open societies in Asia at present. But it was not always like this. Nepal has had its dark periods: 1960-90, 2005, 2016. Even at present, it is not smooth sailing for the mass media here.

Successive governments in the eight years since the new Constitution have tried to squeeze the press. People posting on Facebook have been arrested, YouTubers taken to court, and last year the government banned TikTok.

Censorship in instalments is a way to test the waters to see if the backlash from freedom activists can be handled before imposing stricter restrictions.

Local reporters, who do not have the protection enjoyed by more high-profile journalists in the capital, are threatened and gagged from reporting on activities that harm nature and livelihoods.

Rabi Lamichhane has been under a cloud ever since he was Home Minister last year. A former tv anchor, Lamichhane is open about his contempt for the mainstream press, which he calls the ‘Dirty Dozen’.

Soon after becoming minister this time, he directed local officials to monitor news and social media posts in all 77 districts to keep track of content critical of the government.

He was forced to withdraw this daft idea after a backlash, but is now employing other channels to hit at Big Media mainly through portals, police and the investigation bureau he commands. The man obviously has much to hide, and is blaming the messenger.

Mayors Balen Shah in Kathmandu and Harka Sampang in Dharan who were propelled to office by social media propagation of their populist personas have shown thin skins, and a disdain for journalists critical of their methods.

The draft Media Council Bill will allow a government secretary to select its chair and members. The Council is supposed to ‘advise’ the government in formulating media policies and code of conduct, much like a fox guarding the chicken coop.

Journalism in Nepal is already in crisis because of the collapse of the business model of legacy media. Just when we need an independent press to safeguard freedoms, it is more exposed to corporate and political pressure. There is a steady erosion of democracy in South Asia with varying degrees of censorship. Nepal has flourished as a place for the meeting of the minds, where nationals of neighbouring countries come for free and open discussion. But that space could close if journalists here do not fully defend our constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of expression.

Some of our neighbours have decided that democracy and a free press keep them economically backward, and have adopted the East Asian authoritarian model. We in Nepal have tried strongman rule before, and it failed quite spectacularly.

Media has an agenda-setting role in a democracy. It amplifies the public voice so people are empowered to demand action from elected officials against wrongdoing. Lack of accountability lies at the root of everyday problems like underdevelopment, lack of jobs, air pollution, or environmental degradation.

The current wildfire emergency in this country is a result of decades of official neglect, political apathy and fatalism.

Journalists reporting on the climate crisis, natural resource exploitation or biodiversity loss have shown great courage and sacrifice to get the truth out. Many have been killed. Others have been threatened and silenced. Climate deniers troll science journalists.

Here in Nepal, illegal sand mining, quarrying and logging have destroyed ecosystems. The climate emergency is now magnifying the impact of such wanton destruction on Nepal’s economy.

Disasters like Melamchi and Sikkim could hit cascade projects along the Marsyangdi, Sun Kosi and Arun rivers. Journalists cannot just wait for disasters to strike any more, they must warn of them.

This week, even as smoke from wildfires blanketed the country, the Tarai is reeling under a heat wave. Jhapa was 43°C with 40% humidity, that is very near the lethal wet bulb temperature.

What media chooses not to report, what to report on and how much prominence is given to it determines whether action is taken in time to mitigate danger.

These ‘environmental’ stories are political stories:

  • The government banned plastic bags three times but had to lift it because of lobbying by powerful pellet importers.
  • Air pollution can be reduced by incentivising electric transport, but there are vested interests in the fossil lobby.
  • Nijgad is not an airport project, it is a logging concession controlled by political cronies.

The job of a free press is not just to name and shame crooks, but also to restore the people’s faith in democracy and pluralism. It is the democratic system with freedom of speech and fair elections to reward performance that makes this system work.

We may have no expectations from our tried, tested and failed politicians, but let us not blame the system that they have abused.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.