Laxman Datt Pant is a media scholar and advocate for free and responsible media. He is the founder and chairman of Media Action Nepal (MAN) which promotes freedom of expression and the safety of journalists. This year, the Media Freedom Coalition-Consultative Network (MFC-CN) selected MAN as one of its members and then elected Pant as one of the network’s three co-chairs. A global network of 22 member media rights organizations, MFC-CN advises and updates the Media Freedom Coalition, a cross-regional collaboration of 52 governments around the world. ApEx talks to Pant about the suppression of critical voices in Nepal and South Asia.
How do you assess the state of freedom of expression in Nepal?
The constitution of Nepal guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of the press. But ongoing legislative reforms at the provincial and federal levels show that legislators and governments have forgotten their commitment to national and international principles of human rights, freedom of expression and independent media. Attempts to establish government-controlled media-related bodies, such as the Media Council, the Mass Communications Authority and the Media Academy, at the provincial level, without broader consultations with experts and the civil society, and to introduce a repressive Management of Information Technology Bill, a Media Council Bill and a Federal Media Guidelines, with limited or no consultation, threaten freedom of expression and independent media.
Efforts such as the roll-out of the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the issue of impunity in 2013 provided an excellent opportunity for Nepal to sensitize stakeholders on the intersectional approach to freedom of expression and the safety of journalists.
It could have been crucial if the National Human Rights Commission had set up an independent mechanism for the protection of freedom of expression, one of the three key elements of the plan. But the commission’s draft directive to establish the mechanism ignores Nepal’s local realities of impunity for crimes against journalists.
Limited consultations, reluctance to institutionalize this opportunity and internal conflicts within the national rights body have jeopardized the human rights situation in Nepal. Transitional justice bodies are nearly dysfunctional in dealing effectively with conflict-era cases, including those against journalists.
Are South Asian countries becoming increasingly intolerant of media freedom?
Prolonged impunity for crimes against journalists and legislative reforms that undermine freedom of expression and internet freedom in Nepal, growing intolerance of critical journalism and internet surveillance, including violent attacks on workers in media in Pakistan, as well as the illegal prosecution and surveillance of journalists using the Pegasus spyware in India are proof that the governments of these countries do not tolerate free and independent media.
With the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, media outlets there are facing heightened security challenges, with more than 40% of outlets shut down in recent months. Similarly, authorities in Bangladesh continue to imprison journalists using the Digital Security Act. Maldives’ proposed Evidence Bill also poses a notable threat to the media, as its provisions compel journalists to reveal their sources.
In Sri Lanka, incidents of harassment and intimidation of journalists and restricted access to social media have increased with recent political and economic unrest. And in Bhutan, online campaigns against investigative journalism, including racist attacks, have undermined press freedom principles.
All these incidents do not bode well for the media in the region.
Shouldn’t there be limits on freedom of speech and expression?
International human rights law allows for certain limits on freedom of expression, which in many contexts in Nepal and South Asia have been misinterpreted by authorities to suppress critical voices and watchdog role. medias. Authorities often overlook the fact that the criteria set out in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights permit restrictions on freedom of expression only if it passes a “three-part test” of legitimacy, legality and proportionality.
Section 3 of Article 19 states that restrictions shall be only those provided by law and necessary to respect the rights or reputation of others, to protect national security or public order, or public health or morals. It is high time for South Asian governments to understand and respect these tests.
It is also essential that governments do not carry out these tests. There should be independent courts for that.
How to ensure the safety of journalists in the digital age?
Journalists in South Asia face high levels of digital risk as governments in the region have used the pandemic as an excuse to suppress online and offline media. Data theft by authorities, the introduction of so-called anti-disinformation laws to limit the free press, cyberbullying, trolling and defamation, especially of critical media outlets and female journalists, are just a few- one of the digital challenges facing the region today.
As online threats and harassment against journalists through digital surveillance continue to grow, editorial self-censorship continues, affecting people’s right to information and journalists’ duty to report wrongdoing centers of power. Journalists today must increase their digital literacy, assess significant security threats, including on social media with high-level privacy settings, to stay safe.
What do you propose to South Asian governments to improve the situation of freedom of expression?
While many perpetrators of violence against media and journalists go unpunished, South Asia today faces a huge problem of impunity, which has undermined national and international laws on freedom of expression. The state of impunity has diminished public confidence in the security and justice systems, further undermining the media’s editorial freedom and increasing self-censorship among journalists.
Governments in the region should create an enabling environment for the media to do their job while respecting fundamental human rights, including the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press. They should consider freedom of the media as a fundamental element of the participatory democratic process. Prompt, independent and effective investigations should be conducted in cases of crimes against journalists through independent and constitutional bodies. Perhaps the establishment of a regional mechanism reflecting ongoing UN initiatives, namely the UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity, to defend free media and independent can bring about substantial changes.