NHRC asks govt to remove ambiguity from penal code

Kathmandu, November 16

Chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission Anup Raj Sharma today said the new penal code contained ambiguous words that could be used to punish journalists.

He said this at an interaction organised by the NHRC to dwell on issues related to the freedom of expression.

Sharma said either the vague words in the new penal code should  be removed or a new press law should be brought with a   saving clause to protect  journalists and the press and to govern their work and conduct.

Sharma gave the example of the word ‘obscenity’ which was used by the government of West Bengal in India to punish littérateurs. He feared that the same thing could happen in Nepal if restrictive clauses were not removed from the new penal code.

President of Federation of Nepali Journalists Govinda Acharya said a mechanism should be set up at the NHRC to ensure freedom of expression. He said there were many cases where journalists were arrested by the government for writing news stories.

“In the past when Minendra Rijal was the minister of information and communications, one press release was enough to prevent the government from withholding Cabinet decisions, but this government does not pay heed to our concerns,” Acharya said.  He added that the NHRC should play a role in protecting the interests of the press. Stating that freedom of expression was the most important right after the right to life, Acharya said  big media houses were wary of new restrictive laws and had issued letters to their district correspondents telling them to remove controversial content from their reports, leading to self-censorship.

This means journalists may not report corruption fearing prosecution under the right to privacy law, he added.

Acharya said local governments had also passed restrictive laws against the press and journalists. “Regulating the press is not the government’s job. There are certain mechanisms and codes for regulating journalists’ conduct which should be invoked,” he argued.

Executive Director of Freedom Forum Taranath Dahal said the new penal code and right to privacy law wrongly criminalised defamation and violation of right to privacy.

He said the issues related to journalistic code of conduct should not be mixed with freedom of expression or right to information. Such things happened only in a dictatorial system, he added. He said international instruments and declarations adequately offered safeguards against violation of freedom of expression and guaranteed right to information, but the Nepal government had not fully adhered to those provisions. The government’s decision to form a committee to recommend amendments to the new penal code was an eye-wash, he alleged.

NHRC Chair Sharma distributed a draft of guidelines related to protection of freedom of expression among those present and said the NHRC would soon set up a mechanism to protect interests of the press.