In a democracy, all private individuals have a right to privacy. People, after all, are entitled to lead dignified lives without others prying into their intimate affairs.
However, some of the provisions of the new Criminal Code Act and the draft Privacy Bill violate the principles of press freedom in a democracy, and deliberately blur the lines between what is private and public. If these provisions are not amended, they will lead to the demise of journalism in this country. In fact, the laws appear to be designed to do just that.
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It is in a journalist’s Code of Ethics that a private individual’s privacy should not be infringed upon. However, the Criminal Code twists this right to also include the privacy of those who hold public office. Citizens in a democracy have a right to know what public figures do, what they own, what they say in public or private.
The new Code and Privacy Bill attempt to gag the media and restrict the journalist’s role to hold power to account. For example, they criminalise morphing of images. But the media democracies often employ photo montages as satire to better illustrate a story and drive home the message more clearly. The Code would also essentially silences cartoonists, since the definition of what can be construed as ‘ridicule’ is left so broad.
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Last week, the editor of Himal Khabarpatrika called me to tell me that he was going ahead with a morphed image on the magazine’s cover. He said he was trying to push the boundaries even though the Bill and Act expressly prohibit photo manipulation. It was a test. Having once served as editor of this weekly news magazine which has historically confronted the absolute monarchy and the extreme left to uphold press freedom, I felt it was important for Himal Khabarpatrika to once more stand up for its core values.
The cover image of Home Minister Ram Bahadur Thapa is photoshopped to show him in police uniform. The message here is the minister’s attempt to interfere with the Nepal Police at a time when there have been a series of lapses in the way cases of rape, gold smuggling and restriction on the people’s freedom of movement have been handled.
To be sure, the Criminal Code does not allow the media to manipulate photographs. But our point is that the media is here using the image of a public figure to make an important point about collusion and political interference.
If Thapa was not Home Minister, doctoring his photograph to show him in police uniform could be construed as an infringement of his privacy. But he is a public figure who had made a series of controversial moves that affect the rule of law, and it is the media’s role to bring this to the notice of citizens in the clearest possible way. If journalists are denied this freedom, as is being done now in Nepal, the space for civil society will shrink and democracy will be undermined.
Shiva Gaunle is ex-President of Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) and Editor of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ). This text is a summarised transliteration of his speech at a recent interaction program last week in Kathmandu.