Nepal's new act restricting freedom of religion has already taken its toll on the country with Christian communities and faith-based organization especially feeling the brunt of the latest crackdown. But when the full version of the same act
was revealed on Aug. 17 in the Nepal Gazette
, a government newspaper published by the Department of Printing since 2008, it spelled more bad news for medical doctors, journalists and members of certain other professions. According to the new law, if it can be proved that negligence and recklessness by health professionals resulted in the death of a patient, they can be jailed for up to five years and fined a maximum of 50,000 Nepalese rupees (US$433). Putting restrictions on what subjects can be discussed in public signals a revival of communist-led censorship in this Himalayan nation, which has been led by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Center) for most of the last decade. On May 18, the party was dissolved after merging with the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) to form the Nepal Communist Party, currently the ruling party.
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In its role as the Fourth Estate (fourth power), the media plays a key role in ensuring information about the executive, legislature and the judiciary is widely disseminated and authentic, so the public can participate in development initiatives and good governance. This is a core tenet of democracy, where freedom of expression and press freedom are respected. Nepal is still a young federal democratic republic with a progressive constitution that safeguards freedom of expression and press freedom to a reasonable degree, with Article 17 (2a) in particular listing the former as a fundamental right. That being said, the new criminal code that came into effect on Aug. 17 has taken a move in the opposite direction, marking a giant step backwards for press freedom. Articles 293-308, which relate to privacy and defamation, threaten the independence of the press and criminalize acts that were previously protected under the right to freedom of expression. The provisions are positive in the sense that they prohibit listening to or recording conversations without the consent of all parties involved. They outlaw the publicizing of certain information without permission, even when the person concerned is a public figure, and make it illegal to take or publish photos without consent. However, sending, receiving or publishing unauthorized information via electronic media has also been banned, while forms of political satire that were not considered problematic before can now land reporters or bloggers in jail. Depending on the violation, journalists can now be fined up to 30,000 Nepalese rupees (US$258) or/and be incarcerated for up to three years. Mocking the charter
Of course, there are ambiguous provisions in the act that may allow for multiple layers of interpretation. But due to the way they can be applied, these provisions make it almost impossible for investigative reporters to rely on "confidential" sources due to the new restrictions on privacy. As a simple cartoon can now result in its creator being prosecuted, political satire, which has been integral to the freedom of the press in Nepal, now operates in a legal grey area making it incredibly dangerous for satirists. The law has effectively opened the door for the government to target anyone who disagrees with its views, and given it the leeway to punish them "accordingly." In other words, it makes a mockery of the pledges enshrined in the charter, which promise to end of all forms of discrimination and oppression created by a feudalistic, autocratic and centralized system of governance. It also jeopardizes Nepal's human rights obligations and the commitments the country has made to a number of international human rights bodies. Given how rampant corruption is in Nepal's political circles
, and the impunity with which politicians seemingly operate, one of the fundamental duties of the media is to shine a light on graft and malpractice. The country has already slipped from 100th
in this year's World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), and now the stage is set for things to get even worse. The new law has been put in place stealthily as it ostensibly aims to protect people's right to privacy, but in reality creates opportunities for the abuse of power by authorities governing almost all sectors of society. As a result, reporters will increasingly have to choose between the lesser of two evils: enforce self-censorship and mask the truth, or risk being bankrupted and thrown in the slammer by exposing wrongdoing. Press freedom no joke
As so many people in Nepal now have access to a smartphone or/and social media, taking photographs and recording video clips or audio files are literally within the grasp of the majority of the general public. Despite being subdued during the nation's 20-year civil war — the Maoist insurgency finally ended in 2006 with the signing of an agreement between the government and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal — the media industry has flourished since the monarchy was overthrown a decade ago. But the recent restrictions on press freedom indicate the growing threat of authoritarianism. While Nepal's media is not without its flaws
, it has done its job in keeping an eye on what is happening and serving as a channel for constructive public opinion on problematic issues to keep a lid on abuse by state actors. It certainly should not have to fear being unpunished for sharing information about the misdeeds of others. Press freedom is an accepted feature of a free and self-governing society where freedom of thought needs to be protected and promoted. As such, the media should be free to criticize politicians and the hegemony of the elite — or it risks crumbling in the face of an autocratic government. Only when this structure is respected will Nepal be able to manage the new features of its federal system effectively.
Prakash Khadka is a peace and human rights activist as well as the Nepal representative of Pax Romana, the international Catholic movement for intellectual and cultural affairs.