Nepal | June 03, 2020

Muzzling the media: Threat to democracy

Laxman Datt Pant & Kamal Dev Bhattarai
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If media’s freedom is compromised, it will shrink democratic space, and government agencies will be less accountable and transparent. Curtailing media rights will mean curtailing individual rights and freedom of expression

Illustration: Ratna Sagar Shrestha/THT

When this new government was formed in February, there were high hopes that the country would now embark on the journey of peace and stability. Meanwhile, there were also scepticisms that democratic space could shrink under the new step-up — a strong government with a nearly two-thirds majority and a weak opposition.

A series of decisions taken by the government, some on already promulgated legislations and provisions of the draft bill, clearly indicate that the media and freedom of expression are in peril. Time has come to exert pressure on the government to roll back such decisions which seriously hinder freedom of speech and free media. Many provisions of these legislations also directly contradict the rights enshrined in international treaties and provisions, which Nepal is a state party to.

The Criminal Code that came into effect on August 17 has clauses that undermine freedom of speech and free media. The law prohibits release of private information without prior consent or parodying and disrespecting an individual. Depending on the infraction, journalists could face a fine up to Rs 30,000 or imprisonment of three years or both.

Section 293 criminalises recording and listening to conversations between two or more people without the consent of the persons involved, and Section 294 prohibits disclosing private information without permission, including private information on public figures. Section 295 prohibits photographing a person outside of a public space without consent.

There are both domestic and international pressures to amend such provisions, but the government does not appear to be serious on the demands. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has rightly urged Nepal government to repeal or amend the new Criminal Code to remove provisions that severely threaten press freedom. “Nepal’s new criminal code marks a giant step backward for press freedom,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia Program Coordinator. “Legislators need to go back and scrub the laws of these overly broad provisions that effectively criminalize the normal newsgathering activities of journalists.”

Similarly, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) has also expressed serious objections to the new provisions.

Responding to the “proposed privacy bill”, Bharat Dutta Koirala, senior journalist and the winner of the 2002 Ramon Magsaysay Award in Journalism, has said that the right to criticise people in public offices is an essential element of freedom of speech guaranteed in the constitution of a democratic country.

The Privacy Bill, tabled by the government, also has some objectionable provisions that limit the press freedom. Some of the provisions of the draft bill go against the concept of open data and open government.

The Privacy Bill states that documents of government officials including educational certificates should remain secret. This clearly restricts media to write about the certificates of people holding government offices. This year, Gopal Prasad Parajuli was removed from the post of chief justice after media detected discrepancies in his educational certificates.

And again, the Parliamentary Hearing Committee recently rejected Acting Chief Justice Deep Raj Joshee’s nomination for the post of chief justice after his educational certificates “were found to be suspicious”. As the government is taking a series of steps to curtail civil and political rights, freedom of speech and media freedoms, state mechanisms such as National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), National Information Commission (NIC) and judiciary have remained silent.

The Criminal Code and Privacy Bill contradict the provisions of the new constitution promulgated in 2015. Article 17 of the constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression, whereas Article 19 ensures right to communication. Similarly, the constitution has guaranteed the right to freedom of information. Article 27 says, “Every citizen shall have the right to demand and receive information on any matter of his or her interest or of public interest.”

If Criminal Code and Privacy Acts are endorsed in the current form, they will seriously hamper the media’s right to criticise the functioning of the government. It would be tough for journalists to practise investigative journalism.

Article 19 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) has ensured the right to freedom of speech and opinion, which has also been replicated in the national charter. The provisions on these acts are inconsistent with the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which Nepal ratified in 1991. But both the Criminal Code and Privacy Bill fall short of meeting such standards.

The Privacy Bill goes against the principles of transparency and accountability. The current situation indicates that authorities could make efforts to incorporate the provisions that curtail press freedom.

If media’s freedom is compromised, it will shrink democratic space, and government agencies will be less accountable and transparent.

To avert such crisis, political parties and civil society must play a vital role. Curtailing media rights will mean curtailing individual rights and freedom of expression.

Pant and Bhattarai write on media issues

A version of this article appears in print on August 27, 2018 of The Himalayan Times.

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