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Digital Rights Nepal: Safeguarding Freedom of Expression Online

Digital Rights Nepal: Safeguarding Freedom of Expression Online

Welcome to the latest instalment of our Partners blog series. In this series, we interview our partners from around the world about their critical work in protecting freedom of expression. This time our communications coordinator Anoushka Schellekens, spoke to Santosh Sigdel, rights activist, and co-founder of our newest partner organisation, Digital Rights Nepal (DRN). Santosh discusses the complex context for freedom of expression in Nepal today, the challenges this context engenders for the safeguarding of digital rights, and integral work DRN is doing to meet these challenges head-on.

Could you tell us about why you co-founded DRN, and what kind of work the organisation does?

DRN was established in 2020 with a clear and vital mission: to safeguard digital rights and create a secure digital space for all individuals in Nepal. Founded by a dedicated team comprising rights advocates, academics, civic-tech enthusiasts, and campaigners, DRN has swiftly become a leading non-profit organization in the country, known for its commitment to advancing digital rights.

DRN’s work spans various critical areas, all driven by its core commitment to promoting and protecting digital rights in Nepal. These areas include online Freedom of Expression and Association, privacy and data protection, access to information, internet governance and cyber laws/policies, mis/disinformation and hate speech and cybersecurity and child safety.

Since its inception, DRN has achieved significant milestones in its pursuit of digital rights. The organization actively engages in policy research, conducts surveys and research on various digital rights issues, organizes initiatives to enhance digital rights awareness among youth, executes impactful social media campaigns, collaborates with local governments and civil society organizations, and ardently advocates for digital rights on the international stage.

What is the current situation for digital press freedom in Nepal?

The current state of digital press freedom in Nepal presents a complex landscape with both progress and persistent challenges. Nepal has undergone significant transitions in its press freedom journey over the past two decades, evolving from a challenging environment to becoming one of South Asia’s leading countries for press freedom in 2022. However, despite these positive developments, there are substantial challenges that continue to affect digital press freedom in Nepal.

What are the most pressing challenges contributing to the suppression of press freedom and digital rights in the country?

The Electronic Transactions Act

The Electronic Transactions Act, 2063 (ETA) contains vague provisions that have been misused to stifle freedom of expression, particularly Section 47 of the Act, which prohibits the publication of illegal materials in electronic form. This provision has been overly broad and has been used to target not only journalistic work but also social media posts, resulting in legal actions against journalists and social media users, restricting their online expression.

Press freedom violations by a variety of actors

In 2022, Nepal witnessed 45 incidents of press freedom violations, including arrests, obstructions, threats, and attacks affecting over 120 journalists. Reporters have been intimidated by various actors, including political cadres and security personnel. This has created an atmosphere of self-censorship that undermines the principles of a free press.

Failure to uphold the Working Journalists Act

One of the most pressing issues facing the Nepali media is the failure to implement the Working Journalists Act. This has led to complaints from over 500 working journalists regarding issues related to salaries, perks, and unfair treatment. Additionally, frequent staff changes in state-funded media outlets, along with changes in government, have contributed to job insecurity and political patronage.

Restrictive laws and regulations stifling criticism

Despite constitutional commitments to press freedom and freedom of expression in Nepal’s 2015 Constitution, various government agencies have enacted restrictive laws and regulations, stifling criticism and promoting self-censorship. Instances such as the arrest of journalist Umakanta Pande and overreach by the Election Commission Nepal (ECN) in censoring news reports highlight the need for clarity and adherence to press freedom principles by government bodies.

Misuse of vague terminology in the constitution

Nepal’s constitution prohibits the government from revoking media licenses, closing media outlets, or seizing materials based on content. However, vague terminologies in the constitution have been misused to formulate regulations discouraging unfavourable reporting. The actions of the Press Council Nepal (PCN) and ECN have raised concerns about their commitment to protecting press freedom and media self-regulation.

Despite these challenges, Nepal received recognition for its improved Press Freedom Index ranking in 2022. However, this improvement was primarily due to a revised methodology rather than substantial changes in press freedom practices. Nepal’s media landscape has expanded significantly, but questions about professionalism, ethical standards, and financial sustainability among media outlets persist.

What steps is DRN taking to tackle these challenges to digital rights and press freedom in Nepal?

Currently, DRN is dedicated to actively safeguarding journalists’ legal rights within Nepal’s evolving media landscape through its Media Defence Project. This initiative perfectly aligns with DRN’s core focus of promoting online freedom of expression and association. The initiative aims to contribute to a safer, more democratic digital landscape in Nepal.

The primary aim of establishing the Media Defence centre in Nepal is to provide comprehensive support to journalists, media personnel, and independent media outlets facing legal disputes or violations of their rights. This centre will serve as a critical resource for ensuring the safety and security of those involved in journalistic work.

Its key objectives include:

Providing legal assistance, including counselling, representation, and administrative support, to journalists and media outlets facing threats and legal challenges. By providing this, the project ensures that journalists can carry out their work without fear of legal repercussions.

Operating an Emergency Response Unit to respond to threats and provide immediate support to those in need. Thereby ensuring the safety of journalists and media personnel and promoting a secure environment for media professionals to operate.

Developing a media monitoring tool to track and document press freedom violations and incidents against journalists and media personnel. This will help identify trends, enabling more effective advocacy efforts and targeted interventions to prevent future violations.

Facilitating collaboration among media lawyers to enhance the defence of media freedom. The project’s collaboration with media lawyers and organisations like the Federation of Nepali Journalists and Sancharika Samuha will strengthen the collective effort to defend media freedom in Nepal.

Media Defence welcome this exciting new partnership with Digital Rights Nepal. We are proud to support their critical work creating democratising initiatives that uphold digital rights in Nepal.

We support organisations that either have, or wish to establish, a legal aid unit to provide free legal support to journalists or media outlets. Read more about the support we could provide here.

If you are a journalist facing legal threats because of your work, apply for our support here.

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