Whether Nepal was ruled by a monarchy-military dictatorship, an elected coalition or a communist regime, its leaders have often tried and ultimately failed to suppress the press.
After the royal-military coup of 1 February 2005, the Royal Nepal Army invaded newsrooms. At Nepali Times, two soldiers in military fatigues peered at the monitor, forcing the designer to expunge columns and cartoons. Kathmandu-based papers, including this one, went to press with white holes — so readers got the message that the edition had been censored. We wrote metaphorical editorials comparing democracy to trees, and played cat-and-mouse with the authorities.
Radio stations were told to broadcast only music, no news or current affairs. Some news readers got so fed up they started singing the news, broadcasting bulletins in duets. In the districts, radio stations were closed down, journalists jailed, some tortured and forced into solitary confinement for a year.
After the ceasefire and the 2008 elections, in which the Maoist party won a landslide, many breathed a sigh of relief. The war was over, and it looked like our freedoms had been restored. We were mistaken. The ruling Communists retaliated against critical content in the media throughout 2008-9 by burning newspaper distribution vans, instigating militant unions or vandalising and assaulting journalists in their newsrooms.
Ever since the united Nepal Communist Party came to power, it has been taking incremental steps to gag the media. Not with a sudden, swift crackdown but softly, in instalments. Like frogs in a pot of water above a fire, we are not supposed to notice that the water is starting to boil until it is too late. Just a short recap:
- In August 2018, Nepal’s new Penal Code criminalised photography (Section 295), slapped on heavy fines and jail terms for recording conversations (Section 293) and announced strict punishment for sending, receiving or using online data (Section 298). It banned ridiculing of government officials by Photoshop-ing their images.
- A bill in Parliament sought to prohibit journalists from publishing personal information of public officials, ostensibly to protect their privacy.
- Editors were summoned to the Press Council for intimidating interrogations.
- Three journalists in the English language service of the state news agency RSS are being investigated for putting out a story that the Dalai Lama was out of hospital in New Delhi. Their crime: transmitting the item while President Bidya Devi Bhandari was on a visit to Beijing.
- Last week, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology slipped a draconian Media Council Bill into Parliament with excessive secrecy. It stipulates hefty fines on journalists.
Taken together, this is a creeping coup. Nepal seems to be following the roadmap of elected despots worldwide who are cracking down on the free press. Our leaders appear to have got hold of the manual from the one-party states they have been visiting of late.
The Media Council Bill was introduced in Parliament last week without stakeholder consultation as is customary, and smacks of ill intention. Members of the Council can now be appointed or sacked at will by the Ministry of Communication. Publishers, editors or reporters can be fined up to Rs1 million for tarnishing someone’s reputation.
To be sure, sections of Nepal’s media can also be faulted for yellow journalism, character assassination, extortion, corruption and politically-sponsored content. The media cannot be an island of integrity when the nation is afflicted by a pandemic of graft. Members of the media-industrial complex have at times behaved like power brokers.
Respondents in a recent nationwide public opinion poll gave low marks to the media: 57% said they did not trust journalists much. The outrage over a live studio interview during which Deputy Prime Minister Upendra Yadav walked out on the anchor showed that the public sees journalists as getting too big for their boots.
One reason the media could have fallen in the public’s esteem is that most citizens do not make a distinction between the mainstream press and unfiltered content on social media. But the government cannot use this as an excuse to gag the media. Press freedom is a vital part of the check and balance in a democracy, and the Communist government must realise that one day when it is back in the opposition it will need the very press that it is trying to undermine now.
But if it goes ahead and passes the Media Council Bill, this may be the last time we will be free to say in this space why it goes against the letter and spirit of our Constitution.