Asia-Pacific, Headlines, Human Rights, Press Freedom

NEPAL: The Final Nail in the Coffin for Media Freedom

Damakant Jayshi

KATHMANDU, May 25 2005 (IPS) - After months of sermonising on the need for a “nationalistic” and “responsible” media, the government of Nepal – directly controlled by King Gyanendra – passed an ordinance aimed at taming it.

It was not unexpected, but the new law enacted last week to curb press freedom in Nepal nevertheless has stunned the media community which lost no time in denouncing the ”draconian law”, warning that the worse is yet to come.

”We knew some regulatory measures were in the offing but what has come has really taken us by surprise,” Prateek Pradhan, editor of the largest-circulated English daily, ‘The Kathmandu Post’, told IPS.

The ordinance carrying amendments to various existing laws, relating to the media, was carried by a section of the press last Saturday. These contain some of the harshest measures aimed to muzzle the media since the monarch usurped power by dismissing the cabinet on Feb. 1 and declared a state of emergency, citing the inability of political parties to rein in a nine-year Maoist insurgency that has claimed over 11,000 lives.

On Apr. 30, however, the state of emergency was removed but many civil liberties still remain restricted.

The amendments widen the ambit of defamation with more people included under the term “His Majesty and royal family”, thus barring any criticism of them. Also words like ”insult” have been incorporated in the Defamation Act and the penalty for defamation ranges from 50,000 rupees (about 700 U.S. dollars) and one year imprisonment to a fine of up to 500,000 rupees (7,000 U.S. dollars) and/or two years jail.

The new law also bans any reporting on the Maoist rebels that might ”promote terrorism and destructive activities”. The defiance of this ban attracts fines ranging from 50,000 rupees to 100,000 rupees and/or one year imprisonment.

Reporting deemed to portray the government (with the word ”elected” deleted) in bad light is also covered in the new provisions with the penalties coming under the defamation clauses.

The ordinance affecting both the print and broadcast mediums comes at a time when the independent Nepalese media has been trying to break free from the yoke of self- censorship after the Feb.1 royal coup.

Also, the latest law comes after army’s censorship of the press in the initial days and the government’s decision to withhold its advertisements (about 25 per cent of the market share) to the private media.

But the free press is yet to face its biggest test.

”This draconian law is the biggest jolt since the independent media came into existence after the restoration of democracy in 1990 and we need to defy it,” said Pradhan, questioning the right of the ”unelected government” to pass such a sweeping law in the absence of Parliament.

Calling for defiance of the new measures, Pradhan warned that failure in forcing the government to withdraw the measures would mark the beginning of the end of independent media in the world’s only Hindu kingdom.

The biggest blow, yet again, since the royal coup, has been dealt to the once-successful FM community radio stations. Once the law comes into effect (it awaits the royal seal), community radio stations will be barred from broadcasting any news. They would only be able to air “informative” programmes on health, education, sports, population, weather, road and transport conditions and similar development topics.

”Effectively, the FM stations can only air government capsules and notices on health, agriculture, etc,” explained Shiva Gaunle, chief reporter of the fortnightly ‘Himal Khabarpatrika’ and vice-president, central region of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ).

The new law may take the wind out of the writ filed by a lawyer challenging the government ban on news broadcasts by FM community radio stations. A similar ban imposed about four years ago was annulled by a Supreme Court verdict, terming the ban illegal. More significantly, the apex court then had then ruled that the electronic media enjoys similar rights as newspapers, as guaranteed under the press freedom clause in the constitution.

”The entire FM community will be paralysed if these provisions are implemented,” said Gopal Guragain, the managing director of Communications Corner, the largest network of community radio stations in Nepal. The network covers at least 70 per cent of the grassroots population in rural areas of Nepal.

Moreover, under the new provisions, the radio stations cannot broadcast a programme simultaneously from different centres and stations without seeking prior approval from the government for up-linking facilities.

Two months before the heavily armed soldiers walked into the studio of the Communications Corner on Feb. 1 to shut down its transmission, the private FM radio network had started its own 6 am to 11 pm hourly news channel, called ‘Kaya Kairan’ (‘Head to Toe’). It was modelled after the ‘BBC’ news, every hour, on the hour.

Silence is all that marks the station now. ”It is end of the road for FM stations if the law comes into effect,” said Guragain.

The legal advisor of the government, Attorney-General Pawan Kumar Jha, however, rubbished the talk of muzzling press freedom.

”These amendments are for regulating the media, not for curbing it,” he clarified at a talk programme on the new law in Kathmandu on Saturday. ”No one can have unbridled freedom.”

But the media community sees more restrictions in the days ahead.

”This is an experiment,” warned Taranath Dahal, the ex-president of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, the umbrella organization of journalists in Nepal. “We will be seeing more repressive measures against the press.”

Dahal added the latest restrictive provisions would only worsen the existing self- censorship.

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