Press Freedom: A powerful tool to transform Nepal to a sustainable democracy
When Nepali journalist Yadav Poudel was killed on 4 April in Birtamod, many urged immediate and unrestricted probe into his killing. All said it is essential that the motives for the crime be unveiled, so that journalists can continue exercising their basic human right to freedom of expression, without fearing reprisals for their work.
Today, one month later, Nepal’s journalists join their colleagues worldwide to observe World Press Freedom Day under the global theme, “Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies”. Today, all of us remember Yadav Poudel and the too many other journalists, who like him, became victims of violence over the last years. Today, all of us recall that, in Nepal and elsewhere, impunity of violence is among the greatest threats to press freedom and its power to transform society.
The safety of journalists is fundamental, but it is not the only element to be tackled for media to be able to strengthen the roots of Nepal’s encouraging transformation process. What is also needed is capacity of journalists and free information access to all.
Only well-trained journalists, who understand their rights and responsibilities, can enable the Nepali media to take its crucial role in strengthening democracy. But a low level of professionalism in many media outlets, especially outside Kathmandu Valley, and self-censorship induced by the political atmosphere make it difficult for the media to rise above the challenge of disseminating accurate, timely and non-partisan information on the peace-building process. The challenge also extends to new forms of media, which has made it possible for journalists to have their stories spread further than previously imaginable, and for the audience to access information that previously was not available to them.
The confluence of press freedom and freedom of expression, through various traditional and new media, has given rise to an unprecedented level of media freedom. It is helping to enable civil society and communities to bring about massive social and political transformations. The recent uprisings in some Arab states have highlighted the power of media and the human quest for media freedom.
New media and new opportunities have raised new issues around the safety of journalists and citizen reporters. Quality journalism cannot flourish if media practitioners are constantly under the threat of intimidation, illegal arrest, abduction, hostage-taking, sexual attack, especially on female journalists, and above all murder. In Nepal, the Federation of Nepali Journalists has, between 1 January 2010 and 28 March 2012, recorded over 215 instances of this unacceptable violence. Even though their numbers in absolute terms has declined, compared to over 900 instances between April 2006 and November 2007, the level of threats and attacks remain dangerously high.
In addition, the promise of media freedom is too often undermined by a lack of information infrastructures, as well as the skills to access and critically evaluate information. Not only do many people not have access to express themselves publicly, they are also deprived of information resources that could empower them. The lack of information resources is particular glaring in the context of access to the Internet and computers in Nepal, where the International Telecommunications Union estimates that only 6,9 percent of the population has access to the networks.
Nevertheless, infrastructure alone is not sufficient to ensure access. It also requires information-friendly policies and a solid implementation of freedom of information and right to information acts. Nepal adopted its Right to Information Act in 2006, with great expectations for improved government transparency and accountability. It has also received international applause as it was ranked number 17 on a global rating of right to information laws by the Centre for Law and Democracy. However, five years after its adoption, despite the legal guarantee and the establishment of the Nepal Information Commission, it is not yet fully implemented. Many people do not know about its existence, or how it could help them in obtaining information regarding the peace process or any other issue relevant to them. The aim of the Act, to make the decision-making transparent and hold the State accountable, is still far from being realized. People do not have easy access to public information, and public agencies are not proactively providing this information.
As Nepal transforms and women and men are getting ready for state-restructuring and elections, World Press Freedom Day is an opportunity to raise the flag in the fight for media freedom and its power to make societies democratic. Online and offline freedom of expression is the foundation for democratic societies, a pillar of individual rights and a force for social transformation.
Head of Office and UNESCO Representative to Nepal
UNESCO is the United Nations’ specialized agency with a mandate to defend and promote freedom of expression and its corollary press freedom. World Press Freedom Day was established in 1991 and has since been celebrated every year on 3 May.
This article has been published on the Kathmandu Post, 3 May 2012