Police stand guard in Kathmandu, Nepal, on November 25, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Prakash Mathema)
Police stand guard in Kathmandu, Nepal, on November 25, 2021. Police are investigating two journalists over their social media comments about their outlets' reports alleging police misconduct. (Photo: AFP/Prakash Mathema)

Nepali journalists Aishwarya Kunwar, Puskar Bhatt arrested under cybercrime law

On February 10, police in Kanchanpur district of western Sudurpaschim province arrested Aishwarya Kunwar, a reporter for the privately owned news website Nigarani Khabar, and Puskar Bhatt, a correspondent for the privately owned broadcaster Mountain Television, following their reporting and social media commentary on allegations of police misconduct, according to the local advocacy organizations Media Action Nepal and Freedom Forum.

Police opened an investigation into the journalists, who have since been released, under Section 47 of the Electronic Transactions Act, 2008, those sources said. The law criminalizes the electronic publication of content deemed illegal under existing laws or “contrary to public morality or decent behavior” with a penalty of up to five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US $754). CPJ has repeatedly documented the use of the Electronic Transactions Act to detain and investigate journalists for their work.

Kamal Thapa, superintendent of the Kanchanpur police, told CPJ that the case registered against the journalists was in relation to their social media posts, not their news coverage. On February 5, the Kanchanpur police said in a statement that those who “write such misleading news/status” would be punished under the law.

Binod Bhatta, the journalists’ lawyer, told CPJ that his clients’ social media posts and news coverage should be considered as interrelated because they reported on the same topic in the public interest.

On February 5, Bhatt published an interview on his Facebook page with a police officer who said that he resigned from his job after he was beaten by a female inspector, whom he named. Bhatt also commented on the allegations on his Facebook page.

On February 5, Kunwar’s news website Nigarani Khabar reported the same allegations against the female officer, while a second article made four allegations of misconduct by the same policewoman, including her involvement in detaining Kunwar in 2023 while the journalist was reporting on a clash between police and locals. Kunwar also commented on the allegations on her Facebook page.

Bhatt and Kunwar were released at around 10 p.m. on February 14 and 1 a.m. on February 15 respectively, on personal guarantee, which requires them to remain present in the area while the investigation is carried out, according to Media Action Nepal, Bhatta, and a person familiar with the case who spoke to CPJ on condition of anonymity, citing fear of reprisal.

While in police custody, the officer asked the journalists to apologize by touching her feet, a sign of respect in South Asian culture, but Kunwar refused, which delayed her release, those sources said.

As of February 20, the journalists’ phones, which were seized during their arrest, remained in police custody, according to Bhatta and the person familiar with the case.