he year 2012 was rather forgettable for Nepal, the failure of the Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution undoubtedly representing a nadir for the country which has been in a difficult transition for over six years. It was also a dismal year for the Nepali press. According to the latest report of Freedom Forum, a non-governmental organization working for the protection of freedom of expression, there were 147 incidents of violation of freedom of expression in 2012, up from 96 in 2011. Even more troubling is the finding that threats to press freedom emanated from virtually all sections of the society: government officials, teachers, security agencies, bureaucracy, businessmen, and ‘unidentified’ groups, among others. The degree to which vested interest groups have been emboldened was painfully brought home when a group of hooligans vandalized Nepal Republic Media and beat up journalists, including the editor-in-chief of Nagarik daily, in a brazen daytime assault on the publication house on Dec. 20. The media house’s offence: publication of certain news items deemed ‘objectionable’ to the group.
There were 23 threats on life to Nepali journalists in 2012. Similarly, while there were nine cases of attacks against free press in 2011, there were 32 such cases in 2012. Going through the complete Freedom Forum report at times feels like reading about autocratic states that put severe restrictions on press freedom. The situation, according to the report, was particularly alarming in the final few weeks leading up to the May 27 constitution deadline, as different ethnic and interest groups looked to secure their interests in the new constitution, often through violence. In the process, media organizations deemed to be working against one group or the other were often targeted: in the final two weeks before May 27, there were nearly 90 cases of violation of press freedom, reported from right around the country. There are legitimate fears that so long as the country does not have a permanent constitution, and so long as the current state of transition does not come to an end, press freedom in Nepal will continue to be under severe threat.
The perilous state of press freedom in Nepal largely owes to the state’s apathy. Even cases of murder against journalists like Dekendra Thapa and Prakash Thakuri have been stuck in the court for years, with successive governments showing no initiative to end the judicial process and bring the culprits to book. The state’s lack of seriousness is also indicated by the fact that there has been no action against state officials with proven record of trying to stifle press freedom. There seems to be a fear that free and fair press would be inimical to certain political interests. But in a working democracy, that is exactly how it should be: it is the duty of media to expose the wrongdoings of the high and mighty, especially those in responsible government posts. The media’s role assumes even more importance at a time when the country is without a legislature and has been operating under a caretaker government. Ultimately, there has to be realization on everyone’s part that only a free and independent press can establish the check and balance so vital for the healthy functioning of a democracy.