Press Freedom Under Attack?

Narayan Upadhyay

The Nepali press and many journalists are now an agitated lot. The reason behind their agitation is: the inclusion of provisions in the recently launched Criminal Codes that are regarded controversial and that have raised trepidation among media persons that they can well be victimised by the authority using the ‘anti-press provisions.’ The journalists working in the various media houses and those representing the journalists umbrella organisation, Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ), have contended many provisions of the Criminal Codes that have criminalised the defamation and privacy violation issues which can well affect adversely the existing freedom of press and expression.

At the centre of the raging controversy is the Clause 307 of the newly implemented Criminal Codes that makes the defamation a crime for which the perpetrator can face three years in jail and a fine of Rs. 30,000. Another clause that has sent chill down journalists spine is Clause 294 that aims at curtailing the freedom of the press one or other way. This clause stipulates that a person cannot reveal any information about other person(s) without his/her consent. If he makes the information public without seeking consent of the person concerned then he/she is liable to jail term or fines.
It has been said that the new penal code which replaced the old Muluki Ain have included provisions from 219 to 306 that distinctly deals with defamation and privacy issues. It also deals with the provisions that prohibit sketching cartoons of any person and disfiguring photographs and publishing them in any form in media or social networks. These “offences” can be termed as criminal acts and the maker of cartoons and publishers of the disfigured photographs can be jailed term and fined.
The Nepalese press sector has smelt a rat in these provisions. Many senior media persons have feared that these provisions can be used by the state authority, important persons of the society such as bureaucrats, businessmen, police and army personnel or any other persons to intimidate the press and journalists. The inclusion of these provisions under the Criminal Codes means that the journalists who write news, reports, views or articles against any of these persons can be arrested if and when the persons concerned register a first incident report (FIR) against the journalists. Action can also be taken against media outlets by utilising the same provisions.
Owing to the inclusion of these provisions as criminal offences, the journalist working in their beats would find it very difficult to discharge fearlessly his/her duty- to inform the people and the nation about the state of affairs or the about the persons who belong to the higher echelons of the society. The fear that the journalists and media house would opt for self-censorship is rife now. For a free-wheeling journalist, it is not viable or practicable to produce his stuff every time by seeking permission from the institution or the concerned individuals. One the other hand, the privacy clause can also be utilised to intimidate a journalist.
These provisions have indeed raised the fear among journalists. This may be the main reason that has sent the journalists umbrella organisation, the FNJ, to announce its protests to exert pressure on the government to address the issues.
The journalists said that they would be happy if these issues are included in the Civil Codes which was launched simultaneously with the Criminal Codes, because, they contended any offences committed by a journalist or media while discharging their duty should be termed as civil offences. The journalists are the ones who work to inform and entertain the people and for the betterment of the society while media also acts as voice of the voiceless. Hence, any offence committed by them while discharging their duty should be termed as civil offences, not criminal offences.
Despite the deepening fear among the journalists and media houses, many believe that these provisions in the criminal codes have been included to ensure the prestige of the citizens and to protect the privacy of every citizen. A citizen can be victim of defamation and slander by another person or institution in the society or his or her privacy can be compromised by another citizen of the society. The inclusion of the laws and provisions take care of these anomalies prevalent in the Nepali society. The inclusion has turned the Nepali Criminal Codes at par with the criminal laws of other democratic countries of the world.
Several cool headed people think these clauses won’t be targeted against those who perform as genuine media persons. But one is not sure whether or not these laws would not be used against those involved in yellow journalism or purely involved in tarnishing other’s image and prestige or character assassination.
With the implementation of the codes, journalists in the country fear that these clauses can work against them even when they are involved in doing their duty honestly by adhering to the principles of journalism. For example, the clause that prohibits sketching of cartoons of other persons contradicts with the right of a cartoonist of whose job is to make cartoons and make fun of, or satire on those who are in news.
It would be fair for the present government that never tires of counting its democratic credentials that it must pay attention to protect journalists who are indispensable part of the Fourth Estate. Removal of the Criminal Code provisions that have come as great annoyance to the Nepali press or inclusion clauses in the Civil Codes which would take up separately the issues of journalism or journalists would be some of the ways the authority can resolve the present controversy. Or, it may allow Nepal Press Council to probe into any issue pertaining to journalism or journalists, so that the journalists can feel safe from being branded as criminals.

Journalism in Nepal has come a long way. It is very vibrant now, thanks to the arrival of internet and new media. Trying to criminalise journalists using the Criminal Code provisions would without doubt be a counterproductive act. Because, the freedom of press and expression have been termed as basic rights by the country’s constitution. The vibrant media of the country cannot digest the act of curtailing the constitution-guaranteed press freedom and rights of expression in the name of using controversial defamation and privacy provisions.

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