On Thursday 23 May, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) expressed its concern regarding new measures proposed by the Nepalese government that threaten to endanger press freedom. They are urging the government to amend these proposals in order to bring them in line with civil society and media recommendations.
The Information Technology Bill would allow authorities to place restrictions on social media access and impose penalties on anyone found to be posting “improper” content on social networking sites. Improper content is essentially anything that could be construed as “character assassination and an attack on national sovereignty.”
The fines for individuals who post content on social media deemed to fit the above-mentioned ‘offences’ are up to 1.5 million Nepalese rupees ($13,483), and/or five years imprisonment. The Information Technology Bill would also bar people from publishing “banned products” on social networking sites.
The Information Technology Bill, which would replace Nepal’s Electronic Transaction Act, was proposed in February this year and has now been put forward for debate in parliament.
A proposed amendment to Nepal’s media regulator (the Media Council Bill), meanwhile, would allow it to charge journalists and media outlets with fines ranging from 25,000 to 1 million Nepalese rupees ($233 to $8,927) if they were determined to have damaged a person’s reputation by publishing or broadcasting news.
It would also give the council power to downgrade print media outlets and suspend press passes of journalists if they violate the code of conduct. Even more worryingly, the bill proposes that the government should appoint most of these new council members.
The Media Council Bill would replace Nepal’s existing Press Council Act. It was introduced to parliament on May 9 and is currently being debated by lawmakers.
Steven Butler, CPJ’s program coordinator for Asia, said: “These proposals by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli and his administration would constrict press freedom in Nepal.” He went on to urge the administration “to engage in a dialogue with media members and other stakeholders and amend the bills so that journalists can work in Nepal safely and without fear of prosecution.”
According to the Kathmandu Post, the main issue with these proposed bills is their broad definition of “social network,” as this could potentially give the Media Council jurisdiction over private chat apps, such as WhatsApp and Viber, as well as public social networks like Facebook and Twitter.
This wouldn’t be the first law of its kind – Nepal’s existing Electronic Transaction Act has already been used to prosecute journalists. Arjun Giri, editor of the Tandav News, was temporarily detained in April this year after publishing fraud allegations on a site that was accused of not being properly government-registered.