Mission tells Nepal: No excuse for deferring press freedom

As Nepal’s constituent assembly failed to meet Sunday’s deadline for the passage of a new constitution, a new report released this week on the risks to Nepal’s media should remind political parties that peace and stability are not prerequisites to media freedom but rather that a strong, independent press operating without fear is a requirement for a healthy civil society.

On Saturday, the International Media Mission to Nepal (IMM), a team of representatives from more than a dozen international organizations, released “Safeguarding media rights and ending impunity in Nepal.” The publication details the findings and recommendations of the group’s fact-finding and advocacy mission to Nepal earlier this year. In February, the mission’s members met with a range of stakeholders including government officials, Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, representatives of political parties, dozens of journalists, members of civil society groups, and family members of killed journalists. Two teams visited the cities of Biratnagar and Janakpur, where journalists have been victims of attacks often carried out with impunity.

Following the mission, the team submitted formal recommendations for Nepal’s draft constitution to fully enact a legislative framework that supports media freedom in the country. CPJ participated in the mission and endorsed the recommendations in a letter to Bhattarai on April 6. Among those recommendations, which are also noted in this week’s report, is that the constitution be amended to ban all kinds of censorship.

Other findings by the group, which investigated cases of murder and non-lethal attacks, include concerns for the security of journalists and ongoing impunity for perpetrators of anti-press violence. “The political uncertainty in Nepal after November 2006 provided the backdrop for attacks against journalists and media that had continued even after the peace initiatives,” states the report. “Among the cases that have not been resolved are the ‘disappearance’ of Prakash Singh Thakuri some time after his abduction from the far western district town of Mahendranagarin July 2007; Birendra Shah, who was killed in October 2007; J.P. Joshi, who went missing in September 2008, but whose remains were found in a forested region of far western Nepal two months later; and Uma Singh, who was murdered in her home in Janakpur in the southern plains in January 2009.”

While in Nepal, the mission team proposed the creation of a media task force to promote independent investigations into attacks against journalists and provide protection. The mission team also called for journalist murder investigations to proceed without political intervention, the enactment of an effective witness protection program, and for greater transparency in investigations. The report, among other recommendations, demanded that the government curtail the types of information that are exempt from the Right to Information Act and curb attempts to filter or censor the Internet.

In meetings with Bhattarai and other officials in February, the group received assurances that the constitution would afford the strongest possible protections for journalists’ rights. We were also told that the creation of a media task force would be given serious consideration.

In recent weeks, however, disagreement among political parties has brought Nepal’s acting government to a standstill, and the emergence of a constitution with full protection for the press and the establishment of new mechanisms to promote justice for past victims looks to be ever more elusive. Meanwhile, dozens of journalists have been attacked by activists amid strikes waged in the lead-up to the most recent deadline for the new constitution.

On more than one occasion in February, we were told that little could be done to redress injustices against journalists in Nepal until a new constitution and political stability were secured. But now, as Nepal’s fledgling democracy falters, is not the time to defer steps to protect, strengthen, and legitimatize a free and independent media sector–it is the time to embrace them. The constitution may be in limbo, but political uncertainty should not stall progress in other areas, including the establishment of mechanisms to address impunity and protect journalists under threat.

Download the full International Media Mission report here.

The International Mission comprises 15 international organizations, including global media associations, freedom of expression groups, media development organizations, and UNESCO. This is the seventh visit of the International Mission to Nepal; the previous trips were in July 2005, March 2006, September 2006, January 2008, April 2008, and February 2009.