After violent events that ended a 240-year-old monarchy, the establishment in 2008 of a democratic federal republic in Nepal marked a new chapter for press freedom in this landlocked Himalayan country of 30 million people.
The media landscape is abundant, with 4,800 newspapers and magazines, 880 radio stations, 160 television networks and more than 3,100 online information portals. The Nepalese government is a major media owner, with direct control over the appointment of top editors, as with the bilingual daily, Gorkhapatra (Rising Nepal), founded in 1901. The main private sector entity is Kantipur Media Group, a conglomerate whose activities extend far beyond the media sphere. Its dominance is challenged online by innovative news sites such as onlinekhabar.com, ratopati.com and setopati.com.
Since the republic was formed, the political climate for journalists has gradually become more temperate – at least in appearance, because Nepalese society remains highly politicised. Each major political party has a voice through a trade union or a journalists’ organisation. Naturally, conflicts of interest emerge, even more so in local media, in which editors and owners are themselves often active in a political party.
The Republic of Nepal is one of the few countries in the world to proclaim “total freedom of the press” in the preamble to its Constitution. This provision is expressed in several fundamental rights, including freedom of opinion and of expression, public access to information and privacy. Legislation still needs to be put in place that would create a media council independent of the government and guarantee editorial autonomy to state-owned media. On the other hand, a series of provisions in the penal code adopted in August 2018 hinders investigative journalism and limits criticism of public figures. The legal framework under construction may be improved by proactive initiatives from some provinces, such as Bagmati and Mahesh, which focus on journalist protection.
Press companies are required to pay their editorial staff a minimum salary set by the Working Journalists Act. In practice, however, journalists are rarely paid in accordance with this salary table. As a result, the profession is financially unrewarding, straining journalists’ independence and their respect for ethics. Under-the-table payment in exchange for favourable coverage of private interests is common. The government ensures part of the financial viability of the media by granting legal advertising contracts. But this system also tends to promote media bias, because the government favours channelling its advertising funds to media outlets that support its policies.
Since the end of the civil war in 2006, freedom of the press in Nepal has benefitted from a socio-cultural tradition of debate. Nevertheless, some segments of society are clearly under-represented, and the profession struggles to reflect social diversity. Only 15% of Nepalese journalists are women. Likewise, entry into the profession remains out of reach for the most marginalised members of society, a phenomenon strengthened by the persistence of old caste structures arising from the Hindu tradition. This tendency is reflected in the content offered in the major media outlets, which tend to overlook issues involving marginalised populations, especially in rural and/or remote areas.
The activities of security forces and of some rebel groups are especially sensitive. Lacking adequate security training, many journalists abstain from covering these issues. Protection mechanisms do exist, upheld notably by Press Council Nepal and the National Human Rights Commission. However, they are not quite capable of offering urgent solutions for reporters in danger. Cases of surveillance, threats and intimidation are legion, hence pushing many journalists into self-censorship. Pressures of a more insidious kind may also persuade some reporters to avoid sensitive issues, for fear of being discredited.