Photographer Prasiit Sarkar remembers the first time he held his first camera. “It was 2006, and a very difficult time for Nepal,” he writes to me from Kathmandu. “In the countryside, civil war was at its peak, and in the cities, there were protests going on almost everyday against the autocratic rule of the king. I didn’t know anything about photography back then, and had seen very little. But I started following these protests around Kathmandu and, following that, in April, there was an uprising, bringing the capital—and later, the whole nation—to a halt.”
Sarkar’s description is of the widely-criticised then King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev’s move in 2005, to take absolute control of the state in order to crush the Maoist uprising against the monarchy. Coming straight after what was a short-lived 14-year-long period of democracy in Nepal under constitutional monarchy, this move also crippled one of the key actors of the state, the media. In this report by the Columbia Journalism Review, senior journalist Kunda Dixit speaks about soldiers “with guns” sitting in newsrooms, TV and radio stations, and internet service providers, sifting through the material and deciding what should go and what shouldn’t.
“Freedom of press was almost negligible,” continues Sarkar, “It did get a little better later, but this isn’t to say that freedom of expression wasn’t curtailed.” In 2008, Sarkar’s internship in a daily newspaper in Kathmandu as a photographer involved him covering Tibetan protests (against the Chinese government). “To my surprise, the editor dismissed it and it didn’t run. Most of the media houses didn’t cover these protests (which were very common) at all. It was self-censorship,” he says.
Sarkar’s experience is a sliver in what has been Nepal’s tumultuous relationship with censorship and press freedom. Intimidation and violence towards journalists by state authorities have persisted in the past. Most recently, though, during the 2017 elections, journalists were arrested, banned, threatened and physically attacked. In 2018, Nepal’s Chief Justice Gopal Parajuli imposed a gag order against a newspaper called Kantipur Daily, banning them from publishing any critical reportage on him.
Needless to say that even though Nepal fares better than the rest of Asia in terms of press freedom—ranking 106 out of 180 as opposed to China (176), Bangladesh (146), Pakistan (139), India (138) and Myanmar (137), among others—its policies and toxic nationalism signals an equally alarming trend that often goes unnoticed in the eyes of the international community.
“Having seen the 2006 revolution and how that was the harbinger of freedom and democracy, it is really pitiful to see the current state of the country,” says Sarkar, “Toxic nationalism has penetrated into Nepal as well and it makes it harder for us to present an opposing view. The new Criminal Code is just that, it is aimed at controlling opinions and presenting only one view, the ‘authorised’ perspective.”
The new Criminal Code is the latest in a string of laws that prevents Nepali journalists from following their duties. VICE got in touch with Laxman Datt Pant, Chairperson of Media Action Nepal, one of the few media rights advocacy groups in Nepal that also works with international media watchdog organisations such as Committee to Protect Journalists, to gather further perspective on current events. Last year in August, Pant, along with fellow Nepali journalist, Kamal Dev Bhattarai published his analysis of legislations that “directly contradict the rights enshrined in international treaties and provisions, which Nepal is a state party to.”
The Criminal Code, passed by the parliament of Nepal, became effective from August 2018. The law prohibits the dissemination of private information “without prior consent or parodying and disrespecting an individual”. A violation of this could cost a journalist a fine up to Nepali Rs 30,000, or imprisonment of three years, or both. Furthermore, its Section 293 makes it illegal to record and listen to conversations between two or more people without the consent of the persons involved. Yet another, Section 295 bans photojournalists from photographing persons “outside of a public space without consent.” Article 306.2 further leads anyone who shows “disrespect” towards someone directly or even satire, straight to the prison for three years.
“[These laws] will definitely restrict my work, both as a photographer and a videographer. Working on video/photo documentaries will be very difficult if we have to seek permission from everyone in front of our camera,” says Sarkar. “My experience has been that when there’s something official, (may that be written or verbal permission seeking) it’s very difficult to get people (specially in the villages) to talk or agree to be photographed. I usually work by easing my way in with conversations and jokes, which gets people relaxed. I don’t seek permissions (officially).”
“This is all clearly against investigative journalism,” says Pant, whose career graph includes roles in journalism, the United Nations, and the Nepal International Media Partnership. “On top of that, Nepal is faced with a kind of impunity, a 10-year-long conflict-induced impunity, towards all the journalists killed and about five journalists going missing. Three cases were found wherein the government did not want to investigate the killing of the journalists’ cases. This obviously explains why journalists find themselves unprotected, especially if they're criticising the state power.”
Last year in November, another set of concerns rose when the Nepal government decided to withhold decisions of the meeting of the Council of Ministers from media. There’s also a trend of government agencies, such as the Nepal Airlines and the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, formulating social media use policies to control criticism of the government on social media—all of this being seen as “media manipulation strategies”. And then there is the Electronic Transactions Act, which states, “If any party is not satisfied with the news published or broadcast, he/she may file a complaint with the Press Council Nepal.” So far, six journalists have been arrested under it.
The Federation of Nepali Journalists notes at least 58 incidents against press freedom in 2018, ranging from physical attacks (15) to threats (13) to arrests (6), to obstruction to news reporting (6) and seizure of news media (4). “We do have topics that are very sensitive and is very difficult to cover because of many restrictions. Anything to do with the war, may that be transitional justice, cases of extra-judicial killings or forced disappearances are very sensitive and hard to navigate. However, while we haven’t reached that level of intimidation like in Pakistan or Bangladesh as of now, looking at how things are going, it does look like we will get there soon,” concludes Sarkar.
Interviewees are solely responsible for their opinions and do not reflect the views of VICE India.
Follow Pallavi Pundir on Twitter.