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Press freedom still under threat despite hopes for improvement on return to democratic rule

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is a joint action by five IFEX members and other organizations that make up the International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission:

International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission: Rapid Response Assessment Mission to Nepal

The International Press Freedom and Freedom of Expression Mission (also known as the International Media Mission) visited Nepal from 5 to 8 February to undertake a rapid response assessment of the press freedom situation in the country. The International Mission was represented by ARTICLE 19, International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), International Media Support (IMS), International Press Institute (IPI), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), UNESCO and World Press Freedom Committee (WPFC).

Press freedoms in Nepal continue to face serious threat despite the hope that restoration of democratic rule would improve the situation.

The Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) recorded a staggering 342 press freedom violations in 2008 alone, including a significant escalation in the number of physical attacks on journalists and media houses. Four journalists - Uma Singh, J.P. Joshi, Birendra Sah and Pushkar Bahadur Shrestha - have been killed since 2006. The International Mission calls on the authorities to undertake prompt, independent and impartial investigation of these and all other cases of murder and disappearances of journalists.

Another journalist, Prakash Singh Thakuri, has been missing since July 2007. Late last year, the Government withdrew charges against the accused, who had been released earlier on bail. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal assured the International Mission that the case would be reopened. The International Mission also called for an investigation into the killing of Dekendra Thapa, after his remains were found last year.

The International Mission is deeply worried over the attacks on media houses, including Kantipur, Himal Media, Ankush Daily, Ramaroshan FM and APCA Group. Such attacks on media workers, publications and property are unacceptable. Those responsible must be held accountable for their actions. Any substantive grievances over work conditions must be addressed through dialogue and negotiation.

The International Mission is concerned that due process is not being observed in the cases against Rishi Dhamala, Ram Subhak Mahato, Birendra K.M. and Manoj Mahato. The reported kidnapping of Pankaj Das in Birgunj while the International Mission was in the country must be swiftly followed-up by the authorities.

The ongoing attacks, threats and harassment of media personnel and organisations are having a chilling effect on press freedom. Free and open debate is being undermined with journalists and media being forced into self-censorship, seriously jeopardising the peace and democratisation process currently underway in the country.

A pattern in the attacks and harassment is discernible. Critical reporting is being met with violence and perpetrators go unpunished. The authorities are failing in their duty to prevent, punish and redress the harm caused by such attacks. The violations of journalists' rights are a direct infringement of the public right to information. Furthermore, links between political parties and some the perpetrators of these violent acts are a matter of serious concern and would indicate the acceptance, and possible complicity, of those political parties in the violence. The Nepali Constitution and international covenants that Nepal is signatory to place an obligation on the State to prevent these abuses.

Conditions for women journalists, who are already seriously underrepresented in the profession, are of particular concern as women are more vulnerable to attack and harassment and are being forced to leave their work and sometimes to move away from home due to such pressures.

The International Mission notes that at present, not one person has been convicted for a criminal act against journalists and media houses, and calls on the Prime Minister and Government to follow up on their commitment to end impunity. Moreover, the International Mission demands that all acts of violence against journalists and the media end immediately.

The International Mission urges the Government and political parties to implement the recommendations for freedom of expression and press freedom outlined in the Agenda for Change document as swiftly and fully as possible. Specifically, the International Mission draws attention to the following six points, which should be addressed in accordance with international standards and best practices:

- guarantees of freedom of expression for all and press freedom must be enshrined in the new Constitution;
- the Right to Information (RTI) Act should be properly enforced so as to give practical effect to the presumption in favour of disclosure;
- the Government should end control of media and introduce Public Service Broadcasting;
- an independent regulator for broadcasting should be created in place of direct government control;
- criminal defamation should be abolished and defamation should be addressed only through civil law;
- the Working Journalists' Act should be implemented and accompanied by regular dialogue between media workers and owners.

Furthermore, the International Mission urges the Constituent Assembly to form a committee to deal with the reforms outlined in the Agenda for Change, as well as to follow and respond to the press freedom situation in the country.

The International Mission is convinced that all media stakeholders must rally around the common goal of safeguarding freedom of expression. The International Mission urges the international community to support the national media in its efforts to defend press freedom.

The International Mission, together with its national partners, remains committed to supporting and defending freedom of expression and press freedom in Nepal.

ARTICLE 19

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