Diwakar Chettri

As Nepal’s Parliament passes a slew of bills to activate the new Constitution, hardwon principles like the freedom of press, civil liberties and democracy, appear to be in danger of being suppressed.

When the Criminal Code Act came into effect on 17 August, journalists were alarmed because its provisions could be abused to arbitrarily imprison editors, reporters, photojournalists, and even cartoonists, for defamation.

This week, a new bill on personal privacy has been registered in Parliament that is even more sinister. Critics say it will severely curtail press freedom, allowing the government to jail journalists exposing corruption and holding power to account.

Shiva Gaunle of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) says: “The Criminal Code Act was just a hint of the danger ahead, this bill blatantly aims to muzzle the media.”

Put together, the Criminal Code and the new bill will prevent anyone from taking or selling picture of a person without his/her consent. This clause does not exempt journalists who take pictures of public figures.

Masquerading as a law to protect personal privacy, the new bill goes against constitutionally guaranteed principles and shields public officials from scrutiny.

For example, Article 24 of the bill actually requires government agencies to hide personal information in their possession. An individual’s political affiliation has also been defined as personal information. So, if a Supreme Court justice is a member of a political party, in violation of the principle of separation of powers, that will be considered his private information and out of bounds for journalists, who can be jailed for exposing it.

This provision may have been acceptable if other clauses allowed journalists to investigate the authorities.

And Article 23 does consider some personal information of officials to be in the public domain, but it includes only those details that are easily found in their curriculum vitae. Apart from a public authority’s office name, designation, official email, phone number, nature of work and terms of references, everything else is now defined as personal and inviolable.

Gaunle says: “This bill tries to reverse everything that we have fought for: democracy, press freedom, open data and Right to Information.”

The Constitution protects personal privacy of an individual, enabling citizens to live a dignified life away from the constant glare of a watchful State. But Article 30 of the bill would make it easier for police surveillance of individuals.

If passed, the privacy bill will give authorities more power to hide what should be publicly available. Press freedom activist Tara Nath Dahal says: “It will turn Nepal into a police state, allowing authorities to spy on individuals but preventing journalists from investigating public authorities.”

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