Journalists in Nepal are demanding changes to new criminal and civil codes they say undermine freedom of speech and expression.
The laws that took effect last month are general codes of conduct that apply to all citizens of Nepal, but press freedom groups say harsher sentences for libel and privacy violations are having a chilling effect on journalists in the small Himalayan country. Here are some details:
WHY THE NEW LAWS CAME ABOUT
Nepal’s new civil and criminal codes are the result of a new constitution adopted in 2015. Nepalese lawmakers had three years to design a set of laws that prescribe how the constitution should be interpreted. The codes cover everything from stipulating the legal age of marriage to enshrining property rights and describe how each civil violation or crime can be punished.
WHY THEY ARE CONTROVERSIAL
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression. But provisions of the new codes appear to limit these freedoms, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “Nepal’s new criminal code marks a giant step backward for press freedom,” program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement. For example, the codes make criticizing the president or members of Parliament criminal acts. The codes also prohibit publishing private information, including of officials, ban recording without permission and require photographers to obtain permits in order to take pictures and sell and publish them. The codes say that authorities can detain suspects for up to 40 days while investigating criminal charges. “Now journalists will be first detained and treated like murder suspects even before they are tried or given a chance to clarify,” said Ramesh Bistra, general secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, which has vowed to fight for the codes to be amended. The codes also ban satire, which in Nepal has been a prominent feature in the press and a popular form of protest throughout the country’s changing forms of government — from monarchy to autocratic rule to constitutional monarchy to the republic established in 2007.
Press freedom groups say the language of the laws is broad enough to be used as a tool to attack journalists and deter them from doing their work. The four sections on privacy and defamation decree sentences of up to three years in prison and $260 in fines. Previously, journalists could be fined up to $217 for libel. “These new laws have created an environment of fear for the journalists and more and more of them are now practicing self-censorship,” said Taranath Dahal, who heads the Freedom Forum, a Nepal-based media rights group.
In response to journalists’ protests, the Nepalese government has formed a committee to recommend changes to the codes’ language. This committee, with representatives from several media rights groups and unions, has been given 45 days to come up with recommendations. The government, however, is not obliged to follow them. Even if the government accepts the changes, lawmakers would have to draft amendments, which would then have to be debated in Parliament before changes could be made. This could take months if not years in Nepal. Until then, the controversial new codes remain in effect.