Media law called “unconstitutional” in Supreme Court hearing

New York, November 7, 2005—Nepal’s beleaguered independent media are urging the Supreme Court to strike down a government law curbing press freedom as unconstitutional. In a landmark case, the Court is expected to rule by the end of the week on the petition by nine media groups to block an ordinance issued in October that outlawed the broadcast of news and information on television and radio.

At the start of the hearing yesterday, lawyers called police raids against radio station Kantipur FM, the first target of the new law, “discriminatory” and “vindictive.” Responding today for the government, Attorney General Kumar Ojha told the Court that the new law was not an attack on press freedom but an attempt to regulate the Nepalese media.

On Sunday, the Ministry of Information and Communications summoned the heads of several FM stations to pressure them to sign a pledge not to broadcast news, but the station heads refused, a coalition of stations called Save Independent Radio Movement reported.

Besides the news broadcast ban, the October ordinance also restricts the ability of print media to report critically on government, the royal family, and the security forces. The ordinance codifies a prohibition on news content that “causes hatred or disrespect” to the king and members of the royal family, according to news reports. It also bans news “promoting terrorists, terrorism and destructive activities.” Journalists can now be jailed for up to two years for criticizing the government, The Himalayan Times reported.

“We share the view of our Nepalese colleagues that the October ordinance violates the constitution by unduly restricting the right to free expression,” said CPJ Executive Director Ann Cooper. “We expect that once the Supreme Court examines the evidence it will overturn this draconian law.”

Kantipur Group of Publications, Nepal’s largest media group, has taken the lead in fighting the crackdown since the October 21 raid on its FM radio station when police confiscated transmitter equipment in retaliation for broadcasting news. Petitioners filed three separate cases with the Supreme Court calling for the suspension of the media law on the same day.

The court ordered the government to cease action against Kantipur while it hears the case. The petitioners include the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, and other media rights groups, the president of Nepal’s Bar Association Sambhu Thapa, and the management of Kantipur Group of Publications.

The Nepalese media have been in turmoil since King Gyanendra dismissed the government and imposed curbs on civil rights and media freedom on February 1, claiming that a State of Emergency was necessary to control a nine-year-old Maoist insurgency that has killed about 12,500 people.