Free the press

76 Views       Author: Laxman Datt Pant / 

World Press Freedom Day, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in 1993, falls on May 3 and reminds us annually of the need to create a free, independent and pluralistic media environment across the world. This year’s celebration is focused on the theme, ‘Media Freedom for a Better Future: Shaping the Post-2015 Development Agenda’. On this occasion, the UNGA has unequivocally condemned all attacks against journalists. Issuing a joint statement, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and Unesco Director General Irina Bokova said, “Journalism provides a platform for informed discussion across a wide range of development issues—from environmental challenges and scientific progress to gender equality, youth engagement and peacebuilding. Only when journalists are at liberty to monitor, investigate and criticise policies and actions can good governance exist”. Governments and those with influence must now act on this condemnation by protecting journalists and other media workers, they said.

State of impunity

Journalists in many countries face systematic hindrances to reporting the truth, ranging from censorship, arrest and imprisonment to intimidation, attacks and even assassination.  Journalists in Nepal also continue to face high levels of risk despite the ambitious peace-building framework envisioned in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the constitutional provision on the right to freedom of opinion and expression and the freedom of the press. During the conflict, the country witnessed many cases where journalists were intimidated, threatened and even killed, thereby making them unable to perform

their duties. The high number of threats and cases of violence against journalists, which continue to take place in different parts of Nepal, often as the result of media investigating in cases of rights violations and corruption, seriously undermine these benefits. This holds true in particular for journalists engaged in investigations in the Central Tarai and the eastern hill districts.

According to the Media Monitoring Unit of Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ), there were 54 incidents of media rights violations in 2013. Journalists have been attacked and threatened by government bodies, political parties and their sister organisations, civil servants and security agencies. Journalists face threats from political cadres and various non-state actors, and, in some cases, from state institutions too. However, the state authorities and political actors deny these allegations and hence, the perpetrators have gone unpunished.

This state of impunity has diminished public trust in security and justice and has escalated insecurity and oppression. Such impunity harms editorial freedom and leads to self-censorship among journalists. This situation leads to a de facto limitation of the freedom of expression. A free press cannot flourish in a society characterised by insecurity and impunity. The safety of journalists is a prerequisite for the exercise of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. As a key group of human rights defenders, journalists have a crucial role to play in Nepal’s ongoing transition.

 Behind threats

The immediate and root causes that hinder the safety of journalists in the districts are based on the multifaceted dynamics of conflict in the districts. The environment of impunity is a major factor in this matter. Various political parties and other groups, security officials and government agencies demand positive coverage from the media. This points to a lack of awareness about the independent role of journalists and the principles of balanced reporting. The incongruence between their expectation and the actual coverage by the media often leads to security threats for journalists.

However, journalists’ lack of professional skills and knowledge are also found to be responsible for instigating antagonism. The representatives of political parties and other key informants in the districts perceive journalists to be politically biased and partial. This situation has made journalists vulnerable to attacks from opposing parties. There is another dimension too. Journalists from the districts complain that desk and news editors in the Capital do not understand local dynamics and hence, news reports are edited in such a way that the published or broadcasted version often leads to security threats for local journalists.

Freeing the media

The Long-term Policy of Information and Communication Sector 2003, the Report of High-Level Media Recommendation Commission 2006 and the Interim Government’s Communication Policy 2007 treat the issue of press freedom extensively and provide various policy insights for the development of the media industry in Nepal. Professional security for journalists is also addressed. However, such documents do not highlight the physical safety of journalists.

Journalists perceive security agencies as being vital to ensuring safety and ending impunity. On the other hand, they also perceive these institutions to be sources of threat and hence, practice self-censorship. Targeted safety programmes can bring about increased awareness of security officials and personnel in the district for the safety of journalists.

Furthermore, journalists in the districts are often deprived of exposure to journalism education and training. The quantitative growth of the media and journalists has not been followed by a corresponding rise in quality. Rather, some stakeholders allege that journalistic standards have degraded since the arrival of local media.

A Unesco assessment of the media in Nepal in 2013 provides an excellent framework to guide the efforts of different actors working for media development. It suggests establishing a robust national mechanism to consistently follow up on attacks on journalists and to end impunity. This would undoubtedly minimise fear by highlighting a range of anti-social roadblocks to development, such as corruption and human rights abuses.

A free and pluralistic media can continue to be empirically tested for its role in sustaining development gains, along with respect to good governance. It is high time that Nepal pursues sustainable development as an interlinked system and develops a national media policy which enshrines free and pluralistic media as an integral part of governance in its future federal states.

(Source: The Kathmandu Post, May 2, 2014 09:17)