Kathmandu: With Nepal formulating hundreds of laws in line with the new constitution it adopted in 2015, there are growing national and international concerns over the curtailing of press freedom. Accusations have been flying thick and fast that the government is drafting these laws to limit the scope of constitutionally-guaranteed rights.
The latest bill registered in parliament in Nepal is related to the formation of the Media Council – meant to replace the Press Council Nepal, an autonomous body formed in 1990.
The Federation of Nepalese Journalist (FNJ), an umbrella organisation of 13,050 journalists working across the country, is protesting against the bill which contains the provision that a journalist can be fined up to NPR 1 million if there is violation of media code of ethics. FNJ is working to sensitise political leaders, members of parliament, speakers and others, and has also said that the bill was registered in the parliament secretariat without consulting any stakeholders.
If the draft bill is endorsed in parliament, the Media Council will be likely to fall under the ministry of communication and technology, curbing its autonomy. This is despite the fact that the preamble of constitution adopted in 2015 states that the media would enjoy full freedom of expression.
Civil society, media houses and several other organisations have expressed their solidarity over the agitation launched by FNJ and pressure to withdraw the bill is increasing. Opposition party Nepali Congress (NC) has also released strongly-worded statements.
At a press conference on Sunday, NC President Sher Bahadur Deuba said that media law is a coup against press freedom in Nepal. Deuba said, “The new bill registered in parliament is against the norms of constitution and we will strongly oppose it.”
The National Human Rights Commission, a constitutional body, has publicly expressed its concerns.
It’s not just domestic pressure: The K.P. Oli government is also facing international pressure to withdraw the bill. Issuing a press statement International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) and its affiliate the Nepal Press Union (NPU) strongly criticised the harsh provisions and called on the government to consult media stakeholders and revise the changes.
Randy Berry, the US ambassador to Nepal, said on Monday in a tweet:
Nepal’s leaders consistently stress to me their commitment to democratic freedoms. Freedom of the press is a fundamental part of any democracy, and I am concerned by actions, laws, or regulations that seek to constrain the free flow of information.
— Ambassador Randy Berry (@USAmbNepal) May 13, 2019
The government, however, has strongly defended the bill and said that it will not trample of the freedom of the media. Speaking at a public programme on Sunday, minister for information and communication technology Gukul Prasad Banskota said that bill had been introduced for the greater welfare of journalists.
This is not a first time that the draft of a bill prepared by the government has been hit by such severe criticism as the government is presently in the process of replacing media laws that were formulated after the promulgation of the constitution in 1990. However, each and every law introduced by government has been panned by the Nepali media and international fraternity.
Last year, the government came up with new criminal codecriticised. A provision of the code bars journalist of providing information without prior consent or for satirising an individual. Similarly, journalists have also been detained under the Electronic Transaction Act, 2008, a law which is not related to media.
Under the code, journalists could face fines of up to 30,000 rupees ($270) and imprisonment of up to three years. After the pressure from the media, government formed a panel to suggest ways on how to change the codes. The committee has already submitted its report but there has not been any imitation from government on moving it forward.
In February 2019, the government came up with Information Technology bill which proposes that the authorities be able to block any social media sites if they are not registered in Nepal. The bill was opposed by rights activists who said that it would curtail freedom of speech.
Nepal does not have a long history of press freedom. It enjoyed full freedom only after the restoration of democracy in 1990. The constitution of 1990 was very progressive as it explicitly guaranteed freedom of press in its constitution. Soon after, Nepali media grew substantially. According to the latest report prepared by Press Council Nepal, around 8,000 newspapers are registered across the country. Similarly, 840 FM stations, 153 television stations have received licenses to operate. More so, 1,380 websites were registered with government agencies.
However, the media started to suffer over the years with the rise of the Maoist conflict and political instability. During the Maoist movement, both state and Maoist forces tried to curb press freedoms and some journalists were also killed during the insurgency.
After a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) between the then Seven Party Alliance and Maoist party in 2006, the media began to exercise its freedom.
Despite constitutional provisions, many ruling party leaders have been increasingly speaking out about the need for strong mechanisms to curb the misuse of the right of freedom of speech. Many have accused the media of peddling fake news and defaming people without any evidence. Still, leaders have reiterated that these steps are being able to curtail media freedoms but to make the media more ‘responsible.’
Kamal Dev Bhattarai is Kathmandu-based journalist.