Friday, March 1, 2024

Promote press freedom to bolster other freedoms


Narayan Prasad Ghimire

Kathmandu, 4 May (2023) - The 30th World Press Freedom Day is observed across the globe. Nepal also observed the Day, organizing various activities on this occasion.

Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal 'Prachnda'; Nepali Congress President Sher Bahadur Deuba; Minister for Communications and Information Technology, Rekha Sharma; and Chief Ministers from province governments extended best wishes to the entire community of working journalists and expressed their commitment to press freedom. 

The theme for the Day this year is: "Shaping a Future of Rights: Freedom of Expression as a driver for all other human rights." The theme is itself a message that FoE is enabler of other rights and in absence of FoE and free press, other pillars of democracy will be dented.

Press freedom is an integral element of freedom of expression. It contributes well to build and sustain democratic system. The absence of press freedom depicts authoritarianism in which the system is for oppression, inequality and suppression. Such systems criminalize journalism.

After the UN General Assembly in 1993 declared May 3 as the World Press Freedom Day, it is marked with special significance every year. The international organizations, including the UNESCO, observe the Day with fanfare, calling the world governments to adhere to press freedom and protect and promote human rights. 

Of course, it is the day to remember the contribution of those who died and struggled in course of reporting and journalism. In the country where journalism is criminalized, journalists are killed, attacked, and imprisoned and even made disappeared. For example, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), recorded that 363 journalists were imprisoned worldwide in 2022 alone. In the same period, 67 journalists were killed worldwide, the CPJ report added.

In different parts of the world, the governments muzzle, intimidate and victimize journalists and free press with rigorous laws and policies. Journalists are under surveillance and they are considered foe to system. As journalists endeavour to tell truth to power, seeking accountability, transparency and good governance in system, it becomes obstacles to esurient power-monger and rulers, thereby leading to intimidation on free press. 

On the occasion of the World Press Freedom Day-2023, the UNESCO concept note (draft) mentioned, "Polarized political and societal discourse; erosion of trust; impositions of states of emergency and internet shutdowns; crackdown on critical voices and independent media; news desertification due to the collapse of traditional media business models; and tackling hate speech and online harms that disregard international standards, pose new threats to freedom of expression and the fundamental role of human rights."

Talking about our own country, Nepal too witnessed horrible past in terms of journalists' rights and press freedoms. But, now, we have no more insurgency. It is not in danger zone in terms of press freedom. However, intimidation on journalists and free press are continued in a way or other.

With the vibrant digital presence of people, media and journalists in Nepal, the threats to journalists have evidently gone online/cyberspace. This trend will increase further in the days ahead. 

The umbrella organization of Nepali journalists, Federation of Nepali Journalists, has reiterated that the Working Journalists' Act has not been implemented effectively, thereby jeopardizing working journalists' rights. It is logical that the financial insecurity of journalists has direct impact on media professionalism. The Nepali media houses are still bearing the tremendous impact of COVID-19, which led to massive lay-off of media persons. The joblessness, non-payment, low-payment and delayed payment are plaguing Nepali journalists. At such situation, how can media professionalism and press freedom thrive? It is appealing issue at present.

Another issue to be considered on this occasion is eroding trust on media. It is time to mull why Nepali media has witnessed declined trust. In a democratic system, it is jinx. Once we look into social media and people's status and comments, media houses and journalists are targeted often over their news. It is caused by the wave of digital populism. If the populist politics is nurtured further, it would create such narrative, causing distrust on media. At the same time, the media houses need to make self-review on their works. Whether the media-society relations are positive or not is worth mulling. Similarly, discrediting media and free press by the political leadership is worrying.  

Moreover, it is good that digital age has brought forth huge opportunities for journalists, but it is equally challenging for advocates of free press, investigative journalists and critical writers. So, they need to equip themselves with digital safety skills and knowledge. As the technology has swayed every sphere of life, its downside can not be ignored to ensure free press in Nepal too.

Deluge of digital mis/disinformation has engulfed media irrespective of the place, jeopardizing free press and journalists' rights. In a message to world press freedom day-2023, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, said, "Truth is threatened by disinformation and hate speech, seeking to blur the line between facts and fiction, and science and conspiracy." It indicates that media credibility must be restored and press freedoms promoted to curb digital evils too.

Talking about Nepal's press freedom situation, Executive Chief at Freedom Forum, Taranath Dahal, observes, "Absence of FoE friendly laws for long time and government's overture to suppress right to information are intimidating. Time has come to debate thoroughly how technology as Artificial Intelligence would impact Nepali media and press freedom."

In this connection, the May 3 report issued by Freedom Forum recorded total 40 incidents of press freedom violations where 79 journalists and media persons were affected in Nepal last year- from 2022 May to 2023 April.