Bureaucratic restrictions and targetted investigations undermine free expression, activism
The closure of a prominent print and online publication has raised concerns that media freedom is on the decline in Nepal. On 24th August, regional publication Himal Southasian announced that they had been forced out of operation by a campaign of bureaucratic restrictions. The magazine, which promotes cross-border journalism, stated:
"Reflecting the trend in other parts of Southasia in terms of independent media and civil society organisations, Himal is being silenced not by direct attack or overt censorship but the use of the arms of bureaucracy to paralyse its functioning. Though Nepal has been a leader of free press since the introduction of democracy in 1990, continuous socio-political chaos over two decades has progressively weakened the commitment of the political class to open society."
The outlet went on to state that its closure was due to the ‘non-cooperation of the regulatory state agencies’. Himal was starved of finances, as authorities failed to approve grants for no particular reason or suspended international payments citing arbitrary bureaucratic restrictions. Furthermore, authorities also made obtaining work permits for non-Nepali staff impossible, leaving Himal with a dwindling workforce and no option other than to close.
In another worrying development, journalist and publisher Kunda Dixit was forced into exile after an investigation by the the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA). Dixit gained prominence after an illustrious career in journalism, which included training other investigative journalists across South Asia. Some local journalists and editors say Dixit's situation highlights growing government pressure on journalists in order to censor them from publishing anything critical of the authorities, even if that criticism is fairly reported.
Nepali authorities are investigating a prominent civil society organisation for misappropriation of funds. The CIAA has opened an inquiry into mismanagement of funds at Social Science Baha, a leading non-government research organisation and an affiliate - the Alliance for Social Dialogue. The CIAA also issued a statement on 25th September asking the District Administration Office of Lalitpur to take action against the organisation. According to national daily Kantipur, the CIAA's allegation against the Social Science Baha was biased and targeted in an attempt to defame its officials. Many civic groups fear that the CIAA has the potential to be used to selectively to target critical CSOs through heavy-handed investigations. Social Science Baha strongly refutes any wrongdoing.
Social Science Baha refutes CIAA Charges pic.twitter.com/ipQcx9j9na— Social Science Baha (@soscbaha) October 1, 2016
On 14th August, a group of activists campaigning for good governance registered a complaint with the CIAA seeking information about the property details of the Chief Commissioner Lokman Singh Karki. The civic group wanted to ensure that Mr. Karki was adhering to same financial declaration procedures that were applicable to CSOs. The CIAA not only refused to register the application but called the security forces to detain nine of the activists. The security forces detained the nine activists for four hours. Many civic groups feel that the Nepali authorities' actions are symptomatic of deeply rooted corruption within the CIAA. The CIAA chief, Lokman Singh Karki was subsequently impeached on 23rd October in an unprecedented move by Nepal's parliament after his eligibility to hold office was questioned.