EDITORIAL: Uphold press freedom

We cannot imagine a democratic society without freedom of speech and free flow of information

Some lawmakers from the ruling and opposition benches have registered amendments on a number of clauses of the Right to Privacy Bill tabled in Parliament. The Bill has drawn flaks from various walks of life, including the Federation of Nepali Journalists, the main opposition Nepali Congress and the intelligentsia. The Bill has inserted restrictive measures against mediapersons and the media outlets from making public information detrimental to public post holders. The Nepal Law Commission proposed the draft of the Bill to protect individuals’ privacy, proposing a jail sentence up to three years or a fine up to Rs 30,000 or both for violating individual’s right to privacy. Under the right to privacy, an individual’s citizenship certificate, passport, academic qualification, voter identity card, driving licence, bank accounts, debit and credit card, cheques and drafts, details about immovable property and securities cannot be made public unless required by law. The mediapersons cannot make public of such details of any serving or retired public officers even if there is a reasonable doubt that public office holders or government officials committed unlawful acts or are trying to commit unlawful acts.

The lawmakers seeking amendments to the Bill have also sought immunity for the mediapersons and photographers while reporting or commenting on issues of public importance and inappropriate conduct of serving and retired public post holders. The lawmakers have also sought amendment to a clause that restricts journalists from taking record of communications or conversations of public importance. An amendment proposal has also been registered seeking definition of public post holders as those “who are supposed to exercise public authority or discharge any responsibility or duty”. The Bill has to be enacted by Parliament by September 19, the deadline set by the constitution.

The Bill has some draconian provisions with harsh punishments. If the Bill is passed as proposed by the Nepal Law Commission, Nepal’s press freedom could go back to the dark ages and, it also will not be in conformity with the new constitution that has guaranteed full press freedom. We cannot imagine a democratic society without freedom of speech and free flow of information. If someone is holding the public position, s/he should not get immunity from public scrutiny though his/ her right to privacy should be fully respected as long as they do nothing wrong. It should also be noted that right to press freedom is not for the mediapersons. Press freedom is exercised by the mediapersons—who are the only medium of communication with the people—to make the general public well-informed about the functioning of the state and its machinery and other myriad issues related to larger public interests. If press freedom is curtailed in the name of right to privacy, the state machinery will become more and more autocratic and people will be deprived of right to information on right time. Thomas Jefferson, a principal author of the Declaration of Independence, once famously wrote he would prefer “newspapers without government” over “government without newspapers”. His statement sums up the importance of media freedom in a democratic society. Let’s hope our lawmakers will not curtail the press freedom while enacting the privacy bill.

Death in Qatar

Qatar is one of the favoured destinations among Nepali migrant workers. As the Gulf nation gears up for the 2022 World Cup, it is engaged in massive construction of stadiums where workers from Nepal and other countries land jobs. But they are often forced to work in life-threatening conditions. In a recent case, 23-year-old Tej Narayan Tharu from Morang, died on August 14 at one of the proposed venues for 2022 tournament. He is said to have fallen to death while performing access platform related work. But sadly, Nepali officials seem to be in the dark about the incident.

Nepal has drawn world attention time and again for the high number of deaths of Nepalis in the Gulf countries and Malaysia. Though some efforts have been made—in terms of helping the family bring the bodies and providing compensation—Nepal does not seem to have been able to maintain a strong mechanism to respond to the situations Nepali workers face. While there is a compensation policy in place, families of victims are often caught in the red tape. It’s the responsibility of the state to safeguard its citizens at home and abroad.