World Press Freedom Day: Challenges galore for Nepal’s free media

Umesh Pokharel

Umesh Pokharel

World Press Freedom Day: Challenges galore for Nepal’s free media

“Though the cases of violations of media and labor rights have declined in comparison to previous years, 2022- 2023 remains a challenging year for journalism in Nepal.” This observation from the Federation of Nepali journalists (FNJ) rightly paints a true picture of press freedom in Nepal. Yes, there are some positive signs in Nepal such as a ‘win’ in some labor rights violation cases, increased voices against repressive media laws, decrease in the incidents of media rights violations and strengthened voices for gender-friendly media. On the flip side, decreased public trust toward media, misinformation, disinformation and mal-information, increased economic problems of media houses, attempts of successive governments to introduce harsh policies have affected the overall situation of press freedom. Against this backdrop, this article offers a brief synopsis of the situation of the freedom of the press and expression in Nepal in 2022-2023.

Legislative framework

Although the 2015 Constitution guarantees freedom of expression and the press, the Government of Nepal made an attempt to introduce laws and policies for repressing press freedom in 2022-2023. For example, Nepal’s controversial 2019 Bill to Amend and Integrate the Media Council Act was forwarded to the House of Representatives for deliberations.

This apart, the Information Technology Bill, Nepal Media Council Bill, and the Public Service Broadcasting (PSB) Bill, tabled in 2020 to curb unrestricted flow of information, have still not been withdrawn despite objections from the stakeholders and the civil society.

Also, there was an attempt to classify ‘87 types’ information as ‘confidential’ in an attempt to restrict the public’s access to it, violating the public’s right to information enshrined as a fundamental right in the constitution.

Bringing in policy measures to block access to information in the pretense of misinformation and disinformation remained the tendency of the government last year. Further, Press Council Nepal (PCN) issued a letter to a vernacular daily in October seeking an explanation for publishing a cartoon related to former Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli.

Compared to previous years, the number of media rights violation cases such as killing, arrest, attack, harassment and misuse of law have gone down. According to the FNJ, since May 4, 2022 a total of 52 cases of media rights violations, affecting 66 journalists, have been recorded. The number of violations is low compared to 76 last year.

Obstruction on media-reporting by local bodies has been documented as a frequently occurring media rights violation with documentation of such cases against 17 journalists since May 4, 2022. It is very concerning that at least five such cases have been documented since Balendra Shah took the mayoral position in Kathmandu Metropolitan City in May, 2022.

During the same time, 16 journalists were misbehaved, 15 attacked and 13 journalists received threats. Likewise, two journalists were documented facing gender violence, one case of displacement and two cases of arrest were recorded. Deletion of some of the content of an online news portal in early December, 2022 also paints a grim picture of data security in Nepal.

GBV in the newsroom

While FNJ’s documentation shows two cases of gender-based violence (GBV) in the newsroom since May 2022, the actual situation is worse. As most media houses don’t have the ‘safeguarding policies’ and a grievance handling mechanism, GBV in the newsroom is taken as ‘non important’ and ignored. Also due to sociocultural factors, including the fear of possible retaliation, the violence in the newsroom is hardly reported until the case is out of control.

A study by Media Advocacy Group (MAG), which covered 281 samples, revealed that more than 80 percent of women journalists faced online violence in their lifetime, that too mainly from the people from the media. This apart, there is a gender pay gap thereby devaluing women’s contribution to journalism.

Media sustainability questioned

Due to Nepal’s floundering economy, advertising revenues to the media have also dropped, raising questions on media sustainability. Print media’s advertising has gone down 30-35 percent, advertisements going to radios have declined 10-15 percent while television advertisements have also dropped by nearly 10 percent. The fall of advertising revenues is partly due to decreased audience/reader of the traditional media.

The Nepal Media Survey, 2022 published by Sharecast Initiative found that Nepal’s TV channels and radio stations have lost their audience by 12.2 percent and 14 percent, respectively while newspapers have lost readership by 17 percent.

Glimmer of hope

With the initiation and advocacy of journalists, rights organizations such as FNJ, Nepal Press Union, and issues of labor rights violations are being addressed gradually. FNJ has formed a labor desk to look into the issue while other organizations are collectively advocating justice.

This apart, advocacy from civil society and media has been able to stop the government from passing repressive laws. Gender issues in the media, not considered an important topic in the past, have been accepted as a topic to be discussed in the news-room and in the public sphere. Inclusivity in media structure, content and outputs are getting recognized and strengthened.

Voices of people from marginalized communities, women, and people with disabilities, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Intersex and Queer (LGBTIQA+) and other sections of the society have been articulated through the media. Also, there are some efforts to address the issues of misinformation and disinformation. Another key win in 2022 was that the National Information Commission (NIC) took action against 33 officials associated with different government offices for not providing the information requested by the public.

Way forward

The challenges the media sector faced last year have offered some lessons as well. The Covid-19, decreased economic vibrancy, decline in advertising revenues offered media houses an opportunity to reflect on their current business modality and to work out solutions.

The issues of labor rights violations can be the point of reference from where journalists can realize the importance of the trade union movement. Professional security of journalists, media professionalism, gender equality, safeguarding and protection of journalists as well as media sustainability are some of the key indicators we need to aim for in the coming year.