Laxman Datt Pant: Free speech in South Asia is under threat

The Annapurna Express

The Annapurna Express

Laxman Datt Pant: Free speech in South Asia is under threat

He is the founder and the chairperson of Media Action Nepal (MAN) that advocates for freedom of expression and safety of journalists

Laxman Datt Pant is a media scholar and advocate of free and accountable media. He is the founder and the chairperson of Media Action Nepal (MAN) that advocates for freedom of expression and safety of journalists. The Media Freedom Coalition-Consultative Network (MFC-CN) this year selected MAN as one of its members, subsequently electing Pant as one of the network’s three co-chairs. A 22-member global network of media rights organizations, MFC-CN advises and updates the Media Freedom Coalition, a cross-regional collaboration of 52 governments across the world. ApEx talks to Pant about the suppression of critical voices in Nepal and South Asia.  

How do you evaluate the state of free speech in Nepal?

Nepal’s constitution guarantees freedom of expression and free press. But the legislative reforms taking place at the province and federal levels show lawmakers and the governments have forgotten their commitment to national and international principles of human rights, freedom of speech and the independent media. Attempts at instituting government-controlled media-related bodies, such as Media Council, Mass Communication Authority, and Media Academy, at the province level, without wider expert and civil society consultations, and tabling repressive Informational Technology Management Bill, Media Council Bill and Social Media Directives, at the federal level, with limited or no consultations, pose threats to freedom of expression and independent media.

Efforts such as the rollout of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity back in 2013 had provided a solid opportunity for Nepal to sensitize stakeholders about the intersectional approach to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists. 

This could have been instrumental had the National Human Right Commission established an independent mechanism for the protection of free expression, one of the plan’s three key components. But the commission’s draft of the directive to establish the mechanism ignores Nepal's local realities of the impunity for crimes against journalists. 

Limited consultations, reluctance to institutionalize the opportunity, and internal conflict within the national rights body have imperiled Nepal’s human rights situation. The transitional justice bodies are almost dysfunctional to effectively address conflict-era cases including those against journalists.

Are South Asian countries becoming more intolerant of media freedom?

Prolonged impunity for crimes against journalists and the legislative reforms that undermine freedom of expression and internet freedom in Nepal, growing intolerance to critical journalism and internet surveillance including violent attacks on media workers in Pakistan, and lawsuits and illegal surveillance of journalists using Pegasus spyware in India are the evidence that the governments of these countries are intolerant to free and independent media. 

With the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, media there faces increased security challenges with over 40 percent of media outlets being shut in recent months. Similarly, authorities in Bangladesh continue to jail journalists by using the Digital Security Act. Maldives' proposed Evidence Bill also presents a noticeable threat to media, as its provisions compel journalists to reveal their sources.

In Sri Lanka, incidents of harassment and intimidation of journalists and restricted access to social media have increased with the recent political and economic turmoil. And in Bhutan, online campaigns against investigative journalism including racist attacks have undermined the principles of free press.

All these incidents are not good signs for the region’s media. 

Shouldn’t there be limits to freedom of speech and expression?

The international human rights law allows some limits on freedom of expression, which in many contexts in Nepal and South Asia have been misinterpreted by authorities to suppress critical voices and the media’s watchdog role. Authorities often overlook the fact that the criteria set out in the Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permits restrictions on free speech only if it goes through a ‘three-part test’ of legitimacy, legality and proportionality. 

Section 3 of Article 19 states that restrictions shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary for respect of the rights or reputations of others, protection of national security or public order, or of public health or morals. It is high time governments in South Asia understood and respected these tests.  

It is also essential that governments do not conduct these tests. There should be independent courts for this.

How do you ensure the safety of journalists in the digital age?

Journalists in South Asia face high levels of digital risks, as governments across the region have taken the pandemic as a pretext to suppress both online and offline media. Stealing of data by authorities, introducing so-called anti-disinformation laws to curb free press, cyber bullying, trolling, and character assassination, particularly of critical media and women journalists, are some of the digital challenges the region faces today.

As online threats and harassment against journalists through digital surveillance keep growing, the editorial self-censorship continues, impacting people’s right to information and journalists' duty to report the wrongdoings of the power centers. Journalists of today must increase their digital literacy, assess the substantial safety threats, including on social media with high-level privacy settings, to stay safe. 

What do you suggest South Asian governments do to improve the situation of freedom of expression?

With many of the perpetrators of violence against media and journalists going unpunished, South Asia today faces a huge problem of impunity, which has undermined the national and international laws concerning freedom of expression. The state of impunity has diminished public trust in security and justice systems, further ruining the editorial freedom of the media and increasing self-censorship among journalists.

Governments across the region should create an enabling environment for the media to do their job by respecting the fundamental human rights including the right to freedom of expression and press freedom. They should see media freedom as a fundamental element of participatory democratic process. Prompt, independent and effective investigations should be carried in cases of crimes against journalists through independent and constitutional bodies. Perhaps instituting a regional mechanism reflecting the ongoing UN initiatives—i.e. the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity—to defend free and independent media can make substantial change.