03.05.2013 - UNESCO Office in Kathmandu

Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media

A Friday in early February this year. Throughout the day, Gopal Budathoki receives death threats by phone. The calls come from numbers in Germany and Malaysia. They all menaced him over an article related to the leader of one of the most influential political groups, which he published a few days before in Sanghu Weekly. Gopal Budathoki is its editor. He is a journalist.

He is not the only journalist, who risks his life for freedom of expression.

Worldwide, more than 600 journalists and media workers had been killed in the last ten years.  Nepal has a bad rank in this macabre statistic.  The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) reports that 35 media workers were killed and four disappeared since 2001. In 2013 alone, FNJ recorded 271 cases of media rights violations including three murders and the disappearance of one media person. In addition to these identified cases of violence, there is a great number of unreported and unpunished violence, especially against journalists outside urban areas and women journalists.  And as online journalism is dramatically increasing in Nepal, a new target groups emerges: the citizen journalists. They are particularly vulnerable as no framework for the exercise of freedom of expression in online media exists.

Globally, on average, in past years, only about one-in-ten cases of crimes against journalists, media workers and citizen journalists has led to a conviction.  Persecutions even in serious attacks are rare. In Nepal only three murder cases - Birendra Sah, buried alive in November 2007, Uma Singh, savagely murdered in January 2011, and Yadav Paudel, pushed from a roof to death in April 2012 - were thoroughly investigated and the culprits brought to justice.

Journalists know that they are facing particular threats because they are a constant public interface. Insecurity also comes from lack of professional conduct.  Many of them are divided along political and identity lines, and often do not report in a neutral, non-partisan manner.

But whatever the reasons for harassment, physical attack and even murder are, and whatever strategy a journalist chooses to escape brutal violence this situation leads to a de facto limitation of freedom of expression and freedom of the press.

The rate of arrest and conviction of the masterminds and perpetrators of these crimes is very low.  This impunity creates of climate of fear among journalists. Many resort to self-censorship. Others were forced to leave their home town. Some quit journalism completely.

We know that the acts of violence and the resulting threats to freedom of expression are the consequences of conflict in Nepal.  Key political actors have announced their commitment towards freedom of expression and laws reflecting their commitment are in place. However, aggressions against media professionals continue and the failure to bring the culprits to justice obstruct the establishment of sustainable peace and the rule of law.

Journalists associations in Nepal recognize today that the strategies that they have deployed to improve the security of media professionals are insufficient.  Together with the international media organizations, which have been monitoring the press freedom situation in Nepal since many years, they believe that a mechanism to deal with the issue of safety of journalist and the issue of impunity supported by a central entity is necessary. And they consider that the recently adopted UN Plan of Action on the Safety of Journalists and the Issue of Impunity is an efficient global framework to increase journalists’ safety through independent mechanisms.

Together with the National Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Information and Communications, the professional journalists associations are the key partners of a recently started project for increasing the safety of journalists in Nepal. With funds from the UN Peace Fund for Nepal, the project targets the issue of safety of journalists in a three-tier approach: it aims at establishing a nationally owned mechanism that ensures a safe environment for journalists, it works to enhance the capacity of state authorities, including security sector institutions and the judiciary system, to better protect journalists with support from civil society and the public at large, and it helps journalists to better protect themselves.

This initiative comes very timely both nationally and globally. World Press Freedom Day 2013 focuses on the theme of “Safe to Speak: Securing Freedom of Expression in All Media”. The Day puts the spotlight on the issues of safety of journalists, combating impunity for crimes against freedom of expression, and securing a free and open Internet as the precondition for safety online.

As we celebrate World Press Freedom Day today, we have no further information about the consequences of the death threat calls to Gopal Budathoki. We don’t know whether he started to censor himself in his thinking and writings.  But we know that for him as for many other journalists in Nepal, it is not entirely safe to speak.  They will think twice before using their freedom of expression.  And one free voice lost means one step back on the way to democracy.

Axel Plathe

UNESCO Representative to Nepal

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Note: This article written by Axle Plathe, Head of UNESCO Office in Kathmandu has been published on the Kathmandu Post, a national daily, on 3 May 2013




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