It is not possible to celebrate freedom when you are not free. A new report by the Freedom Forum–a civil liberties group–has revealed that Nepal has become increasingly intolerant of journalists owing to the increased number of attacks against them and growing digital surveillance of reporters.—Editorial titled ‘Fourth Estate’ in Nepalese daily The Kathmandu Post on May 2, 2019 (World Press Freedom Day).
Nepal has enshrined press freedom in its Constitution–a positive step that is not replicated in a number of other countries. And Nepal scores better than many of its South Asian neighbours in Reporters Without Borders’ latest press abuse report. But it is not shielded from the prevailing winds that are buffeting the rest of the world and there are worrying reports of journalists experiencing self-censorship, harassment, wrongful arrest and threats against their lives.—Richard Morris, British envoy in Nepal in his Oped piece in The Kathmandu Post on May 3, 2019.
The latest attempt by the KP Sharma Oli-led government to replace the existing Press Council with a Media Council which will enjoy draconian powers like levying heavy fines on journalists is being set as yet another measure to curb press freedom in Nepal.
The Bill seeking to set up a Media Council has been ‘registered’ in Parliament and its contents have not been made public officially. It is expected to have an easy passage, given the two-thirds majority the Oli government enjoys. The weak Opposition has made the government’s task to push through the legislation even easier.
The Nepalese media, understandably, is concerned and alarmed at the steps that have taken Oli government to curb its freedom ever since it came to power early last year. A robust Nepalese media has been stoutly opposing the attempts to gag it. Late last month, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) submitted a memorandum to the Nepal Communist Party co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as well as Nepali Congress head Sher Bahadur Deuba, seeking freedom for the press.
Among the other laws the Oli government has put in place violating media freedom are the Criminal and Civil Codes that came into effect in August last year, says a report called ‘Regressive Laws, Mounting Violations’ that has been compiled by Freedom Forum. The report says the provisions of these laws “could curtail freedom of expression in the name of national security, privacy, defamation, blasphemy, obscenity and hate speech.”
The report also cites the Individual Privacy Act, 2018 which came into force in September last year. According to the report, “it is aimed at curbing journalists’ right to write investigative stories in the name of personal privacy of public people and offices (sic).”
Senior Nepalese journalist Rajendra Dahal who has been editor of Himal magazine and now heads the monthly magazine Shikshakremarked, “My main concern is why is the government hiding the draft Bill? Is the government afraid of the Nepalese people and press? Why doesn’t it have the confidence to defend its own Bill before us?”
Speaking about the proposal to set up a Media Council, Taranath Dahal, founder-chairman and chief executive of the Freedom Forum, said: “There has been no proper consultation. No copies of the proposed Bill have been made available to stakeholders like journalists’ associations and civil society. The government wants to push it through in a secret manner. Since PM Oli has a majority in Parliament, he can easily have it passed”.
Sharing details of the proposed Media Council Bill that he accessed, T. Dahal feared it can be misused against journalists as it will be able to levy fines on them ranging from Rs 25,000 to Rs 5 lakh. Further, T. Dahal said the proposed legislation is an “attempt to create a Council that will be an administrative unit of the government”.
There are more problems with the proposed Media Council, said T. Dahal. For instance, to be eligible to be made chairman or a member of this body all that would be required is a graduate degree and only 10 years of journalistic experience. Noting that the government will be nominating members to the Media Council, he remarked: “It’s a joke, actually.”
The Electronic Transaction Act, in particular Articles 47 and 48, too are seen as being aimed at muzzling the media in Nepal.
There are also growing concerns among journalists in Nepal about the Advertising Regulation Bill, 2019 that is being seen as yet another measure to control the media.
Journalists believe that the government, on the pretext of having checks on the social media, is actually trying to curtail press freedom.