It has only been two weeks since Nepal’s new Penal Code criminalised photography (Section 295), slapped heavy fines and jail terms for recording conversations (Section 293), and announced strict punishment for sending, receiving or using online data (Section 298). Another privacy-related bill in Parliament will prohibit people from publishing personal information of public officials. But it has already had a chilling effect across the Nepali media.
A person who ridiculed the prime minister on Facebook was tracked down and arrested for photo-manipulating the prime minister’s photo, which violates Section 295 of the Code. Editors of Nagarik, Annapurna Post and Kantipur were summoned to the Press Council for interrogation.
Photojournalist Usha Titikshu was taking a photo of a damaged CCTV camera at an airport recently, when she was stopped. “Don’t you know the new rules about not taking photos?” she was warned.
If enacted earlier, the new laws would have forced editors to spike their recent investigative reports on the Chief Justice’s doctored certificates, photos showing collusion between top politicians and medical college owners, and stories of corruption in high places.
The Federation of Nepalese Journalists last week issued its Godavari Declaration demanding that the provisions be immediately rescinded. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters without Borders (RSF) and others all condemned the move, demanding that Nepal adhere to the international standards and principles of freedom of expression.
Although the constitution guarantees press freedom as an inviolable right, the laws try to enforce constitutional provisions protecting a citizen’s right to privacy more strictly, even extending it to public figures.
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Press adviser to the prime minister and former editor Kundan Aryal admits that a free press is important, but says the Nepali media has failed to self-regulate.
“Journalists do not rein themselves in, they feel free to make derogatory comments, especially about women. It is necessary to regulate the press,” he told Nepali Times.
Such talk has already had a dampening effect, with editors and reporters now more wary of publishing information in the public interest. The fear is that the laws are so broadly defined and open to interpretation, anyone can be hauled over for anything.
The crackdowns started coming thick and fast after the Nepal Communist Party government was elected to power in January: it consolidated the surveillance arms of the state in the PMO, proposed restrictions on advocacy through the National Integrity Policy, and banned popular areas for protest.
Photographer Chandra Ale of Onlinekhabar recently faced questions when he was at Kalimati vegetable market where traders had locked up government inspectors. “A person asked me if I had permission to take photos. He followed me, and forced me to delete my pictures,” Ale relates.
Photojournalist Usha Titikshu thinks there is a systematic plan to gag the media. “Threats to journalists are more common across South Asia, and we have not connected the dots to see that the same is happening in Nepal,” says Titikshu, citing the rape and deaths of journalists in India and the arrest of noted Bangladeshi photographer Shahidul Alam who is being mistreated in jail. “We see our own government moving towards similar intolerance in Nepal.”
Ujjwal Acharya, South Asia coordinator of IFJ and digital media watcher says: “Today one thinks twice before posting anything on social media. By the looks of it, the government intends to curtail all kinds of expression, especially investigative journalism.”
Says Nagarik editor Gunaraj Luintel who answered an unprecedented summon from the Press Council: “It was overstepping its mandate, even asking me to explain a mistake in print to the parties involved. The council is only supposed to promote ethical journalism, but it has become an arm of the government. The aim is to increase censorship in a planned way.”
Narayan Wagle, editor of Kantipur, was also summoned by the Press Council for the first time in his 30-year career, and says the it has outlived its usefulness.
“The practice in democratic countries is that the government does not monitor the press. The press monitors itself through a code of ethics. But in Nepal, a new law about the Press Council is in the offing, which proves the government wants to further tighten the noose around the press.”
Bikas Karki, president of Photo Journalists’ Club, agrees that the government’s real intention is control: “The Constitution has become like the elephant’s tusks, it is there just for show. The laws are the real teeth inside, which bite.”
Nepal has gone through censorship before. The Panchayat system banned political parties, and the royal palace strictly controlled the press. In 2005, King Gyanendra tried to take the country back to those dark days. Some say the new Code is even worse than the Panchayat.
“There were threats then, but they were verbal or even unspoken,” recalls photojournalist Gopal Chitrakar, who started out at Gorkhapatra during the Pancahayat. “I don’t remember such draconian measures. These new rules are in writing, they are backed by the law. That gives them legitimacy which is more dangerous.”
Kundan Aryal reassured us that the Code and laws can always be amended. But this does not convince journalists who say the laws that restrict media freedom are inherently anti-democratic, unconstitutional and remove its check-and-balance function. Laws that are broadly defined are even more dangerous, and can be a path to authoritarianism.
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