Monday, September 26, 2022

Press freedom-2021: Hostile environment against journalists continues


Looking back at the year 2021, Nepal didn’t have a good experience in terms of health and political development. The second wave of Covid-19 pandemic hit Nepal hard, causing months-long lockdown and death of thousands of people. Similarly, political turmoil pervaded all three organs of the state i.e. the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. The ripples of these two incidents affected Nepali media as well.

According to the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, 16 journalists died of Covid-19, while more than 500 journalists were infected by the virus in the previous year. In addition to that, there were several incidents of press freedom violation.

The Annual Press Freedom Report prepared by Monitoring Desk of Freedom Forum shows that there were 59 incidents of press freedom violation previous year, affecting 83 media persons directly. Among them 89 percent were male while 11 percent were female. The number of incidents and affected journalists is less than the previous year (2020), however the hostile environment continues.

The report shows that online media is under attack in Nepal, as most cases of press freedom violations were witnessed against online media.  Among the total affected journalists 40 were associated with online media.

According to the Press Council Nepal, more than 3,000 online news portal are registered in Nepal. The rise in online media reflects the shift of media from print to online medium. The increased internet penetration in Nepali society has also contributed to this rise. Further, the shift toward online media was also noticed due to the economic crisis caused by Covid-19 crisis.

The increasing number of online media is a good omen as it points at the wider reach of Nepali media among people. Increasing number of people are turning to online media to access information. Online media has also helped ensure accountability of state and political parties. However, along with that, the rise of attacks on online media journalists is also worrisome.

Constitution of Nepal makes an unflinching commitment towards absolute press freedom. But framers of the constitution and the authorities concerned themselves are ignorant about it. The report shows that the most hostile elements to media freedom in Nepal are the state, its agencies and the politicians.

Fourteen incidents of press freedom violation were caused by government employees, while 24 were by security personnel and 10 were caused by political cadres, which include politicians, people's representatives and their workers.

Despite the univocal commitment by government, state agencies, and politicians to adhere to press freedom, there is a huge disparity between their words and true implementation.

The government has adopted the tendency of capturing media to assert its influence. Very recently, the article by Ghanashyam Bhatta, published on both print and online medium of Gorkhapatra, the state-owned newspaper, was removed from the online portal. The article titled:  'Expectations from Nepali Congress's general convention' (translated from Nepali) was critical against the ruling party.

Similarly, Press Council Nepal, a statutory body responsible for press regulation, was also harsh towards media under the influence of the government. It blacklisted several online media for disregarding their instructions. It also asked for clarifications of other news portals for the titles given to news stories.

The press council has the mandate to investigate and punish the violation of the code of conduct of journalists. However, blocking websites of online media for misleading news is a harsh step not proportional to the act. Further, seeking clarification over the headlines creates panic and fear among the journalists, which may result in self-censorship. These actions by the government regulatory body discredit the journalists. It can have a direct effect on public faith on the media.  

Journalists faced continuous obstruction while reporting general convention of political parties, meeting of the federal assembly and provincial assemblies, at police stations, at government bodies, and even at the Supreme Court.

The situation is worse at the local level. Local representatives openly threaten journalists for reporting news criticizing them. Several incidents can be listed. Mayor of Haripur Municipality in Province 2 threatened journalists for reporting long pending construction of primary health care center. Mayor of Chandannath Municipality in Jumla district threatened reporter over phone call for writing news that criticized her. These and other incidents take place regularly at local levels.

In democracy, the press plays the role of messenger that collects, processes and disseminates information on issues of public concern, on behalf of the public who themselves can't do it alone. The work of the press holds great significance in democratic system to hold the state accountable and to furnish enough information to sovereign citizens for making neutral choices in democratic process. If this messenger is intimidated or influenced in any way, it will affect the health of democracy.

This year, we are going to have elections for all three tiers of government. Political tussles over the year will definitely result in some rowdy political activisms which have been witnessed in previous elections. The undisciplined election campaigning may pose a threat for journalists covering them.

To ensure the freedom of the press, there is a need for firm steps from state agencies and political parties with their actions. The leadership from top to bottom needs to develop a tolerant attitude towards critical news or opinions. Furthermore, there is a need for dedicated monitoring of press freedom violation, steady advocacy and firm ensuring of accountability of authorities concerned to minimize such incidents.  

Dahal and Ray are campaigners of press freedom.

Published on 12 January 2022