Privacy and the press

Press freedom might come under attack as the government passes new law


On the World Press Freedom Index, Nepal ranks 106th out of 180 countries. That is  certainly not something to be proud of. But when you look at the neighbourhood, Nepal can seem like a relative oasis of free expression. India ranks 138th, Pakistan 139th, Bangladesh 146th, and China 176th. The fourth estate has played a significant role in Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to republic, championing the voices of the people, and clamouring for rights.

Of course, the press is not without its discontents—many criticise mainstream publications for being too partisan. Still, barring moments of authoritarianism, it is safe to say that the press in Nepal has been relatively free in exercising its freedom of expression.

But a new law passed by the government has raised grave concerns, that this very freedom might come under attack. The new Criminal Code, which comes into effect from Friday, includes a number of articles on the protection of privacy that are alarming, especially for journalists and the press. Article 293 forbids listening to or recording any private conversation between two or more persons without their explicit consent. Any contravention of this article could result in a two-year jail sentence, a Rs 20,000 fine, or both. Similarly, Article 294 forbids the releasing of any confidential information without explicit permission or unless expressly demanded by the law. Furthermore, Article 295 outlaws the taking of photographs without the permission of the subject unless in a public place.

On the surface, these laws seem aimed at protecting the privacy rights of the public. With the proliferation of mobile phones, everyone has access to photo, video, and audio recording at their fingertips. These laws could help prevent distressing trends like harassment, stalking, and revenge pornography. But these laws are just broad enough that they could put a serious damper on the work of investigative journalists who rely on confidential sources. Perhaps ‘sting’ journalism, made infamous by tabloids in India, is not the best form of investigative reporting—but clandestine recordings of conversations have helped journalists expose crimes and corruption in the past.

Article 306.2.c is another similarly broad law that criminalises satire that ‘disrespects’ an individual. The clause comes with a long list of caveats but all of them are vague enough that an argument could be made either way. Satire is an important part of the freedom of expression and Nepal has a long tradition of sending up politicians and public figures. It is a marker of our maturity as a nation that we allow ourselves the ability to laugh at the self-important and grandiose, rather than being obsequious towards authority figures.

Freedom of the press is essential to any democracy and any laws that might be used to circumscribe that freedom should be scrutinised so that it is not misused. Political figures and even Supreme Court judges have not refrained from attempting to muzzle the press when it suits their needs. The constant tussle between the authorities and the press is the sign of a healthy democracy, where praise, disagreement, criticism, and satire all go hand-in-hand. The laws introduced in the new Criminal Code are worded in such a way that they leave much room for interpretation and thus, could be used in a court of law to prosecute investigative reporters, journalists, and even cartoonists. It would be wise to reconsider their wording and application. The press, too, must remain vigilant and wary of their use and misuse.

Published: 2018-08-16 23:00:00