Threats to press freedom have only increased in Nepal, says report

Kathmandu, 2nd May 2019

Nepal has become increasingly intolerant of journalists, with an increased number of attacks against them and growing digital surveillance of reporters, according to a new report by a civil liberty group.

The Freedom Forum report found 104 incidents of press freedom violations in Nepal in the last 12 months, which is nearly double of what was recorded in 2017. Incidents include journalists being subjected to physical attacks, lawsuits, barred from reporting certain events, and even receiving death threats.

“Last year was challenging and disappointing for press freedom in Nepal because of the significant rise in the number of violations against the press, formulation of laws and policies unfavorable to the free press, and increased digital surveillance of journalists,” the report stated.

The grim picture of press freedom in Nepal comes less than two weeks after Reporters Without Borders, an advocacy group on issues relating to freedom of information and freedom of the press, described  Nepal’s press freedom as “‘victim of political vicissitudes”. In its World Press Freedom Index 2019, Nepal’s position remained unchanged at 106. Nepal had fallen six places to 106 in 2018.

But conversations about the increasingly hostile situation for journalists, and anyone critical of the government’s actions, have been making the rounds for several months now. Advocates say that stringent regulations, both proposed and existing, are being used to stifle press freedom, as evident in recent incidents of journalists being barred from reporting or being attacked for their work. The latest was the April detention of, and subsequent charges filed against, journalist Arjun Giri under the Electronic Transaction Act for publishing a story about a local businessman.

According to the Federation of Nepali Journalists, dozens of reporters and editors have been arrested, detained and fined in the last decade under the Electronic Transaction Act. This Act, which came into effect in 2006, was intended to authenticate banking transactions and discourage cybercrime; it is not related to journalists or the media. Authorities, however, have been using vaguely worded provisions in the law to take action against not just journalistic work published online, but also against social media posts deemed “improper”.

In addition to cybercrime charges under the Electronic Transaction Act, journalists in Nepal are also routinely taken to court on defamation charges.

“Defamation lawsuits are tactics used by a certain section of society as a warning to other journalists to not report critically,” said Shiva Gaunle, editor of the Centre for Investigative Journalism-Nepal.

Businessman Rajendra Bajgain had filed a case at the Lalitpur District Court against Gaunle, accusing him of defamation for the Centre’s Nepal Leaks report, published earlier this year. The investigation looked into dozens of Nepalis who had flouted rules and invested in tax havens abroad.

It isn’t just private citizens like Bajgain who’ve attempted to prosecute the press for its reporting. Advocates say the KP Sharma Oli administration has been visibly on the frontlines of attempting to stifle journalists and freedom of expression through its laws and policies.

Minister of Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota has repeatedly admonished the press in public and private for critical coverage of the current government.

Last year, Baskota ordered state media to muzzle--and counter--news items related to Nirmala Pant, a 13-year-old girl from Kanchanpur, who was raped and murdered, and Dr Govinda KC, who was then staging a hunger strike demanding reforms to medical education in the country. The minister summoned the editors of five state media outlets, and asked them to effectively discredit and mitigate the private media’s trenchant coverage of the government’s inaction in both cases.

“The way ministries and various departments have been issuing circulars directed at tightening freedom of expression make us wonder if we are headed towards the shrinking of our constitutional rights,” said advocate Sanjeeb Ghimire of Freedom Forum.

Journalists and groups advocating for free speech have repeatedly expressed concerns about the current government’s hostile attitude towards everyone, from reporters to the general public, critical of the establishment on social media. Last month, a poet was arrested in Rasuwa for his alleged support of the Netra Bikram Chand ‘Biplab’ led Communist Party of Nepal (CPN).

But the government has repeatedly defended its decisions, especially in regard to media laws and policies, saying no one can overstep the constitution. Speaking to the Post, Mahendra Gurung, secretary at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, said that he had not read the Freedom Forum report but emphasised that press freedom is guided by rights enshrined in the constitution and that the government’s decisions have been shaped by the same constitutional provisions.

“We’ve tried to expand and institutionalise the freedom guaranteed by the constitution through different media bills,” said Gurung. “We don’t have any intention of curtailing existing freedoms.”

However, the situation has become increasingly dire for journalists. As the Freedom Forum report states, a number of press freedom violations have been conducted by government agencies.

Last March, Raj Kumar Raut, a Siraha-based reporter for Kantipur Television, was barred from reporting about the Secondary Education Examinations after reports about exam papers being leaked with the alleged involvement of local authorities surfaced. Raut told the Post that the police guarding the exam centre were acting “on orders from above”.

“The guard said his higher-ups had ordered them under the Siraha Chief District Officer’s briefing to not let reporters take videos of the premises,” said Raut. After failing to convince the police and the exam centre chief to let him do his job, Raut ended up reporting about his struggle to file the story, rather than the exam itself. During one heated exchange, police at the examination hall snatched Raut’s camera and prevented him from entering school grounds, said Raut. All this left him feeling utterly dejected, he said.

“I was just trying to do my job,” said Raut, who didn’t pursue any stories about the exams after that incident. “Reporting about the exams suddenly became risky and I just didn’t have the energy to fight anymore.”

How did we get here?

The Oli-led government completed a year in office in February, and it's been a particularly busy year so far for the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology. Last October, the ministry had expressed pride at the 20,000 plus websites it had censored for obscene and harmful content, which it said was done to curb sexual violence. The following month, Minister for Information and Communication Technology Baskota began “a new arrangement” of weekly updates on Cabinet decisions, breaking the long tradition of media briefings that were held after every Cabinet meeting.

Three months later, more chastisement followed. On February 13, the ministry proposed a bill seeking to tighten the use of social media and regulate all internet-based companies in Nepal, days after the government tabled a new law at the House of Representatives restricting civil servants from sharing their views on social networking sites. The bill, which was tabled in Parliament last week, includes provisions to fine or imprison individuals who post “improper” content on social networking sites that the authorities deem to be discrediting to individuals or an attack on national security.

Independent experts who have been working with the government for the past couple of years to amend the Electronic Transaction Act say there has been intervention from the Prime Minister’s Office as well as the Ministry of Home Affairs to include stringent provisions regarding social media, and give the information technology department the jurisdiction to order social networks to take down content.

“This government has been talking about prosperity on one hand, while also going after every critical voice--from journalists seeking accountability to the more silly posts on social media criticising authorities,” said Gaunle. - Kathmandu Post

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