Not free yet

  • Safety and security of journalists remained a challenge in Nepal throughout the past year
- BHANU BHAKTA ACHARYA
Not free yet

Dec 31, 2014-

Unlike the previous years, the year 2014 can be assessed as an improved period for Nepal with regards to freedom of the press for two reasons: first, there was a reasonable decrease in intimidation in the media sphere by organised actors, such as political parties; second, there was no incident of murder of journalists throughout the year. The safety and security of journalists, however, continued to remain a challenge because of the continuity of physical attacks, death threats, denial of access to information, and contempt of court. A number of key trends with respect to the freedom of the press in Nepal will be analysed in this article.  

Judicial actions against impunity

The year witnessed three judicial verdicts against impunity in the field of journalism and media. First, a government officer was sentenced to five years in prison, along with a financial penalty, for raping a female journalist in Pokhara. Second, five people involved in the 2004 murder of Dekendra Thapa, a journalist from Dailekh district, received prison sentences spanning one to two years. Third, the Appellate Court in Ilam sentenced three individuals to life in prison for the murder of Yadav Poudel, a Jhapa-based journalist killed in 2012. The court verdicts are important in the fight against impunity in the country, and are also expected to deter further crimes and provide justice to the victims’ families.

Media stakeholders, however, have raised concerns over the sentences in the first two cases, deeming them to be “surprisingly minimal”. The offenders could have been punished in a strong manner as per the existing legislation so as to discourage similar violations against journalists in the future. Critics suspect that the court might have compromised itself due to potential political consequences with respect to the sentencing of culprits in Dekendra’s murder case. If this is the case, the freedom of the press scenario in Nepal has been facing a most difficult time.

Limiting free expression

As in previous years, the Electronic Transaction Act 2008 (ETA) was misused by government functionaries arbitrarily in order to limit people’s freedom of expression, an essential prerequisite of an effective democratic system. Mohammad Abdul Rahman was arrested in June from Saptari district over his comment on a Facebook post of a news story entitled ‘Improving Security in Saptari’. In response to the news story, Rahman commented on May 31: “How is it [security] improving when I have to pay Rs 50,000 simply to get back my own motorbike that had been stolen?” Even though Rahman’s comment did not constitute hate speech nor did it violate existing laws, police claimed that Rahman’s comment violated the ETA. In a similar incident, police arrested Raju Prasad Sah, a government employee in Bara district, because of his response to a Facebook post against a minister. Human rights and media activists in Nepal expressed their concerns over the continued misuse of the ETA, which has been used as a tool to suppress people’s right to free expression and information sharing.

In another move to limit freedom of expression, the Nepal government registered a Contempt of the Court Bill in Parliament on June 9 with the motive of curbing journalists’ right to publish/broadcast critical opinions against the courts and judges. The Bill defines contempt of court as—influencing a sub-judicial matter, insulting the judgment of a court, recording activities within a courtroom without a judge’s permission, and insulting a staff or judge of the court. The Bill, which seems to have been designed as a tool to shield wrongdoings of the court and the judges, proposes giving judges discretionary power to initiate a case with the punishment ranging from a fine up to Rs 10,000 or a jail-term up to one year or both. These provisions openly disrespect the freedom of the press and could seriously endanger the freedom of expression of the general public as granted in the Constitution. Media stakeholders in Nepal and abroad have warned that the proposed Bill does not meet international human rights standards, and, therefore, should not proceed further without serious public consultations with stakeholders.

Denial of access to information

Government functionaries in Nepal often do not respect the rights of journalists to have access to information. On January 21, the Constituent Assembly (CA) Secretariat barred photojournalists from entering the CA gallery to take photos of the newly-elected CA members while the members were being administered the oath of office and secrecy. Similarly, in November, private sector media journalists were barred from entering the Saarc Conference in order to cover the conference activities, whereas journalists representing private media companies from other countries were allowed into the conference without any restriction. Such barring by government agencies has prevented journalists from independent reporting and has compromised citizens’ right to information. The existing legislation does not discriminate between government and non-government media with respect to access to information for public dissemination purposes.

Physical attacks, death threats

The year was mostly infamous for physical attacks and threats to journalists due to their news reporting. The situation was so intense that anyone unhappy with a news story could threaten the news reporter in order to discourage further reporting. The first day of 2014 began with the vandalising and attacking of journalists in an office at the Tikapur Daily in Kailali district. The offenders were unhappy with a news report on a road accident. During the year, more than two dozen physical attack incidents on journalists and media institutions occurred, merely because journalists’ news reports went against perpetrators’ interests.

Threats were another tactic commonly used to terrorise journalists this year. Various interest groups, including political cadres, business persons, manpower agencies, and government employees, used threats to silence criticism by the media against their interests. Most notably, KP Dhungana, a reporter of Nagarik Daily, received hundreds of death threats following his news report about Dil Shova’s Ama Ghar on February 27. Even a church pastor held and questioned a Rastriya Sanchar Samiti (RSS) journalist for three hours on June 17 when he caught the journalist taking photos of church activities on school premises in Kathmandu. Mobile phones, emails, and social media have become easy mediums through which to pose threats against journalists, and there is no immediate or effective mechanism to safeguard journalists against such threats.

On the brighter side, the year saw fewer incidents against freedom of the press by organised groups than the previous year. Also, this year, a couple of judicial verdicts were made to end impunity, even though they were surprisingly minimal than the existing legal provisions in the country. However, most of the news’ subjects or stakeholders did not tolerate media criticism but rather, tried to silence the media and journalists through death threats or physical attacks. Attacking and threatening journalists and encouraging them to remain quiet on critical issues was the significant trend of the year with respect to freedom of the press and free expression. In addition, by introducing the Contempt of Court Bill, the government and the judiciary attempted to limit journalists’ privilege to news reporting, leading to increased self-censorship among journalists on critical issues.

Acharya is a research assistant on media ethics and accountability at the University of Ottawa, Canada

 

Published: 01-01-2015 09:08

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