Freedom of the Press
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Press Freedom Score (0 = best, 100 = worst)
Legal Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Political Environment(0 = best, 40 = worst)
Economic Environment(0 = best, 30 = worst)
Status change explanation: Nepal’s status improved from Not Free to Partly Free as a result of a dramatic shift in the media environment that accompanied equally dramatic political change, including the overthrow of direct rule by the monarchy, the reintroduction of a parliamentary form of government, and the peace accords reached with the Maoist rebels.
Media freedom improved dramatically in Nepal during 2006 as a result of equally dramatic political change in which massive street protests forced an end to King Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev’s direct rule in April. While the king agreed to step out of political life and restore the 1990 Parliament, the Maoist insurgents agreed to a cease-fire and a restarting of peace talks designed to end the violence and bring them into the political process. Journalists, local press freedom organizations, and other civil society activists played a key role in restoring greater democratic rights through organizing a number of demonstrations in addition to pressing the Supreme Court to uphold media freedom.
Nepali media started the year under heavy legal restrictions, including a state of emergency, overt censorship of news, and frequent arrests and detention of editors. In addition, an October 2005 ordinance gave the government the power to revoke journalists’ press accreditation and to impose high fines for publishing banned items; permanently barred private radio stations from broadcasting news; criminalized criticism of the royal family; and restricted media cross-ownership. However, beginning in May, the interim government rescinded this and several other pieces of “antimedia” legislation. Parts of the Press and Publications Act, which allowed for restrictions on speech and writing that could undermine the monarchy, national security, public order, or interethnic or intercaste relations, were repealed by the Parliament in May. Similarly, provisions of the 1992 National Broadcasting Act, which gave the government the right to cancel the licenses of radio and television stations, were deemed incompatible with constitutional guarantees for press freedom. A high-level media commission was formed in June to further review media laws and practices. Antiterrorism legislation permitting authorities to detain for renewable six-month periods individuals suspected of supporting the Maoists had been used regularly to arrest and detain journalists suspected of pro-Maoist leanings for long periods. In July, the government announced that all prisoners held under the law would be freed and that no new cases would be filed, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Finally, the interim constitution signed in December provides for press freedom and specifically prohibits censorship or the closure of, or cancellation of registration to, print and broadcast media outlets.
The media now function in a less threatening environment than under Gyanendra’s rule, when harassment, intimidation, and violence toward journalists were commonplace. Following the king’s overthrow, the interim government as well as the Maoist leadership promised to respect press freedom, and an improvement in conditions was clear. However, journalists still face harassment from Maoist cadres, local-level officials and politicians, police and military forces, and criminal groups, especially when reporting on sensitive topics. Although instances in which the government was directly responsible for attacks or threats toward the press were less frequent, there have been cases in which police or soldiers have mistreated journalists. Maoists continue to regularly intimidate, detain, kidnap, and assault reporters owing to their coverage of the rebels or the peace process. Journalists have also come under attack by activists or mobs when covering the news or reporting on sensitive topics; reporters covering the treatment of minority groups in rural areas have been threatened or attacked. With dozens of cases of threats and attacks documented in the latter half of the year by groups such as the Kathmandu-based Federation of Nepalese Journalists and the Center for Human Rights and Democratic Studies, journalists’ ability to operate freely, particularly in the rural areas, remains constrained.
The government owns several of the major English-language and vernacular dailies; these news outlets generally provide pro-government coverage. Hundreds of private publications, some with particular political viewpoints, provide a range of diverse views, and many have resumed their critical coverage of sensitive issues such as human rights violations, the insurgency, and corruption. The government owns both the influential Radio Nepal, whose political coverage is supportive of official policies, and NTV, Nepal’s main television station. Private FM and community radio stations, which together with the national radio network reach some 90 percent of the population, flourished prior to the 2005 coup and are a primary source of information, particularly in the rural areas. Under Gyanendra’s direct rule, censorship and news bans caused the closure of many stations, forcing several thousand reporters out of work. However, this situation was reversed in 2006, with many radio journalists returning to their jobs. Requirements for registering broadcast stations were eased, and by October the government had awarded licenses for 6 new television channels and 50 FM radio stations across the country. A 2005 decision to ban official advertising in private news outlets was also reversed. The internet is generally unrestricted but was accessed by less than 1 percent of the population. During 2005 and early 2006, some pro-Maoist or antimonarchy websites were reportedly blocked or monitored, but this surveillance ceased after the April transition. Restrictions on foreign broadcasts were similarly lifted.