Nepal: Authorities continue to target journalists, stifle protests and seek to increase surveillance powers
The state of civic space in Nepal is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Documented violations of fundamental freedoms include arbitrary arrests and the use of excessive force with impunity during protests, as well as the ongoing targeting of journalists, including through harassment, attacks and criminalisation.
Lawmakers in Nepal elected a new president in March 2023. Ram Chandra Poudel, a former parliament speaker and senior leader of the opposition Nepali Congress party, was declared winner after five hours of voting. The president is largely a figurehead with little political power. But the election triggered a feud among partners in the governing alliance headed by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal who backed Poudel, angering his main coalition partner, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist.
In the same month, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal won a vote of confidence in parliament after securing the support of the opposition centrist Nepali Congress party and other smaller groups. His old coalition allies pulled out of the government after he chose an opposition candidate to become the next president.
Civil society groups continued to call on the government to ensure accountability for conflict era abuses which successive governments have blocked. Concerns were raised about a bill to amend transitional justice legislation presented to parliament on 19th March 2023 that would not adequately provide for the effective prosecution of serious crimes under international law.
In May 2023, The Supreme Court of Nepal instructed the government to recognise the same-sex foreign spouse of a Nepali citizen. The court also instructed the government to urgently consider a 2015 court-ordered report that recommended broader recognition of same-sex relationships.
In recent months, there have been reports of obstruction, threats and physical attacks against journalists as the press council blocked a news portal. The government is pushing legal amendments to obtain surveillance of phones and social media details without court approval. Police have continued to arrest peaceful protesters and detain them.
Journalists remain at risk in Nepal for their reporting on political and social issues. The country dropped from 76th place in 2022 to 95th in 2023 in the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom index published in May 2023. According to RSF, while the media landscape is abundant with newspapers and magazines, radio stations and television networks, cases of surveillance, threats and intimidation often push many journalists into self-censorship.
Freedom Forum is pleased to share annual #pressfreedom 2023 report on the auspicious occasion of #WorldPressFreedomDay2023 .#May3https://t.co/LpvDcBgMlJ@tndahal7 @IFEX @rti_nepal @HariHba82 @kathmandupost @thehimalayan @Online_khabar @setopati @Rato_pati @Hello_MoCIT pic.twitter.com/jbv4eOyX1T— Freedom Forum (@ForumFreedom) May 3, 2023
According to Freedom Forum’s annual media report covering the 2022 period, there were a total of 45 incidents of press freedom violations where 120 journalists were directly affected. Among the violations documented were arrest and detention, threats and attacks against journalists. The report further stated that there was little progress in addressing impunity for crimes against journalists.
Obstruction, threats and physical attacks against journalists
Since January 2023 there have been a number of reports of violations against journalists that have been reported by Freedom Forum on their monitoring website.
On 19th April 2023, police officers obstructed three journalists from reporting in Jhapa in the Koshi Province. Journalists Chiranjibi Ghimire (Nayapatrika National daily), Bishnu Prasad Pokharel (Gorkhapatra National daily) and Sudeep Adhikari (Himshikhar TV) were allegedly barred from reporting the ongoing protest in Om Mechi Hospital where a woman had died during her delivery. When the journalists reached the hospital, the police stopped them and even though they showed their press identity cards and requested access it was in vain. One of the officers also reportedly shoved reporter Ghimire. One of the journalists said that the Mayor of Damak Municipality had ordered the police officers to deny them access.
On 26th April 2023, it was reported that the Mayor of Dharan Submetropolitan city in Koshi Province, Harka Sampang harassed a journalist at Galaxy 4K Television, Prakash Timsina. While at a press conference held to discuss the ongoing Itahari-Dharan border conflict the journalist tried to ask a question. Instead of responding, the mayor asked the reporter which political party he belonged to. He then referred to the journalist who had written news critical of him as a 'journalist of a political party'.
Economic bureau chief at the Himalaya Times national daily, Lekhanath Pokharel, was threatened for his reporting on 15th May 2023. The incident took place at the daily's office in Kathmandu. Pokharel told Freedom Forum that news about the alleged involvement of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party President, Rajan Shiwakoti, in a financial fraud case at Sindhujwala Hydropower Limited was published in the daily on the day of the incident. Shiwakoti came to the Himalaya Times office and threatened Pokharel as well as asking for the source of the news. Shiwakoti accused Pokharel of making false allegations against him and issued a death threat.
On 24th May 2023, police harassed Sushila Pathak, a reporter from Kantipur Television in Biratnagar in Koshi Province. Pathak told Freedom Forum that she was filming a video of police checking the movement of goods in the border area in the morning. The police shouted at her to stop filming and also seized the mobile phone she was using to film the video.
Press council condemned for blocking news portal
🇳🇵 #Nepal: @ForumFreedom reminded the Press Council that "blocking an entire media outlet for the publication of a news story is a blatant violation of free press and free expression." https://t.co/0LhjRlUKdB @tndahal7 @ntagovnp— IFEX (@IFEX) May 14, 2023
On 7th May 2023, the Press Council of Nepal ordered the Telecommunications Authority to block an online news portal https://www.nationaldainik.com/ for its critical content following a complaint filed over a news story published the day before.
The news portal had published news of an audio recording about alleged involvement of women leaders in defrauding individuals and taking hefty amounts The Council’s letter stated that one of the women leaders had filed a complaint that the news was fake and had attempted to defame her. The letter stated that the Council had found that the portal had violated the journalists’ code of conduct and was neither registered nor listed with the Council. It called for the portal to be shut down inside the country.
Freedom Forum condemned the Council’s move to shut down the news portal. It said that “the council is an authorised body tasked with monitoring media content and it could have asked the portal to provide a clarification”. It added: “blocking an entire media outlet for the publication of a news story is a blatant violation of free press and free expression. Press freedom is a constitutionally guaranteed right in Nepal. The Press Council must not be misused by the authorities”.
Government seeking surveillance powers without court approval
According to reports in March 2023, the government is planning to submit to the federal parliament a controversial bill to amend telecommunication laws. The bill will allow the authorities to tap the phones and social media details without prior court approval.
A court permit is currently required to access someone’s phone calls or SMS records. The court had issued a mandamus order in 2016 barring the police and investigating authorities from accessing phone and SMS records without permission from the court.
Section 77(1) of the draft bill says the investigative body can record anyone’s calls of or obtain details disclosing their identity or other details from the service provider if the person in question is believed to be engaged in activities against Nepal’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, or involving treason, crime or organised crime or a criminal offence. Section 77(2) says that there will be direct access to service providers for activities under sub-section 1. Similarly, Section 79 states that investigating officers can also deactivate a telephone, mobile device or communication media.
Internet freedom advocate and president of Digital Rights Nepal Santosh Sigdel said Section 77(1) allows interception of all kinds of criminal offences, irrespective of their gravity, which is not justifiable on the grounds of ‘necessity’ and ‘proportionality’. Further, Section 79 restricts the freedom of expression and right to information.
Tara Nath Dahal, executive chairman of the Freedom Forum, said "signs are that the Nepali state is not serious about protecting civil liberties". He added that “the state mechanisms including the political leadership are not committed to even basic freedoms such as the freedom of expression and right to privacy”.
Police arrest activists demanding justice
In January 2023, police arrested several activists including Ruby Khan, who had been staging a sit-in demanding action against the perpetrators involved in the alleged murder of two women from Nepalgunj.
Police arrested seven rights activists including Khan while they were protesting in front of the Kathmandu District Court in Babar Mahal. The arrested individuals were held at the police office in Singha Durbar.
A group of women from Nepalgunj in Banke had been staging a protest at Maitighar in the country’s capital since December 2022, seeking justice for Nirmala Kurmi, who has been missing since 2010, and Nakunni Dhobi, who died in July 2021. The activists allege that both cases relate to attempts to forcibly acquire the victims’ land. Fourteen of them had walked all the way from Nepalgunj in Lumbini Province to Kathmandu in Bagmati Province, covering a distance of over 500 km in 20 days.
This is not the first time the police have detained Ruby Khan. As previously documented, in 2021, police used trumped up charges of “polygamy” to detain her for leading a protest against the failure to properly investigate two alleged murders linked to land acquisition. Thirteen protesters from the group, including Khan, were arrested at a peaceful sit-in protest in Kathmandu in October 2021.
Violent protest against new traffic rules
Public Transport operators staged a protest in Kathmandu against the “traffic police’s strict rules”, and KMC’s decision“not to let long & medium route public vehicles park in corridors except inside the New Bus Park”. They set two police vans on fire and looted a mall. pic.twitter.com/83c5mQPMEO— Niraj B (@NirajNPL) February 13, 2023
In February 2023, transport workers held a protest against the "excesses" of the traffic police and new traffic rules that imposed excessive fines.
The National Federation of Nepal Transport Entrepreneurs accused the government of unilaterally amending Motor Vehicles and Transport Management Act-1993 to increase penalties without any basis.
According to reports, on 13th February, public transportation came to a halt in the Kathmandu Valley for several hours. Operators of public transport vehicles blocked roads at various sections of the Ring Road in the capital. Protesters allegedly pelted stones at the police, set vehicles on fire, vandalised properties and set fire to traffic cones and temporary traffic police posts. The police fired numerous rounds of tear gas and also baton charged the protestors.
Police silence protesters at event with Prime Minister
Nepali state’s commitment to free speech in doubt— The Kathmandu Post (@kathmandupost) March 24, 2023
Two recent incidents have made people question Dahal government’s sincerity to protect constitutional freedoms. https://t.co/OG2EHBYugL — by @Nishanktm
According to Freedom Forum, on 21st March, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal arrived at an event organised to mark the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in New Baneshwor, Kathmandu. During the programme, a group of youths stood up and started protesting against the high interest imposed by the government and demanded that it lower the current bank interest rate on loans.
Police officers on duty moved in to forcibly detain them. Police personnel were seen trying to tightly cover the mouths of some youths. Altogether police arrested three youths - Uddhab Basnet, Biplav Khadka and Som Sharma. They were charged with 'indecent behaviour' and were kept in detention for five days for further investigation. A video of the police personnel trying to gag the protestors went viral, courting criticism from all sections of society.