How new criminal laws threaten Nepal journalism

A Nepalese roadside vendor reads the news in Kathmandu, Nepal, Friday, Sept. 21, 2018. (AP)
Updated 24 September 2018
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How new criminal laws threaten Nepal journalism

  • The codes prohibit publishing private information, including of officials, ban recording without permission and require photographers to obtain permits in order to take pictures and sell and publish them

KATMANDU, Nepal: Journalists in Nepal are demanding changes to new criminal and civil codes they say undermine freedom of speech and expression.
The laws that took effect last month are general codes of conduct that apply to all citizens of Nepal, but press freedom groups say harsher sentences for libel and privacy violations are having a chilling effect on journalists in the small Himalayan country. Here are some details:
WHY THE NEW LAWS CAME ABOUT
Nepal’s new civil and criminal codes are the result of a new constitution adopted in 2015. Nepalese lawmakers had three years to design a set of laws that prescribe how the constitution should be interpreted. The codes cover everything from stipulating the legal age of marriage to enshrining property rights and describe how each civil violation or crime can be punished.
WHY THEY ARE CONTROVERSIAL
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and expression. But provisions of the new codes appear to limit these freedoms, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. “Nepal’s new criminal code marks a giant step backward for press freedom,” program coordinator Steven Butler said in a statement. For example, the codes make criticizing the president or members of Parliament criminal acts. The codes also prohibit publishing private information, including of officials, ban recording without permission and require photographers to obtain permits in order to take pictures and sell and publish them. The codes say that authorities can detain suspects for up to 40 days while investigating criminal charges. “Now journalists will be first detained and treated like murder suspects even before they are tried or given a chance to clarify,” said Ramesh Bistra, general secretary of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists, which has vowed to fight for the codes to be amended. The codes also ban satire, which in Nepal has been a prominent feature in the press and a popular form of protest throughout the country’s changing forms of government — from monarchy to autocratic rule to constitutional monarchy to the republic established in 2007.
CHILLING EFFECT
Press freedom groups say the language of the laws is broad enough to be used as a tool to attack journalists and deter them from doing their work. The four sections on privacy and defamation decree sentences of up to three years in prison and $260 in fines. Previously, journalists could be fined up to $217 for libel. “These new laws have created an environment of fear for the journalists and more and more of them are now practicing self-censorship,” said Taranath Dahal, who heads the Freedom Forum, a Nepal-based media rights group.
GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE
In response to journalists’ protests, the Nepalese government has formed a committee to recommend changes to the codes’ language. This committee, with representatives from several media rights groups and unions, has been given 45 days to come up with recommendations. The government, however, is not obliged to follow them. Even if the government accepts the changes, lawmakers would have to draft amendments, which would then have to be debated in Parliament before changes could be made. This could take months if not years in Nepal. Until then, the controversial new codes remain in effect.


Taliban confront fake news and social media in propaganda war

Updated 15 February 2019
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Taliban confront fake news and social media in propaganda war

  • The Taliban’s official spokesman now tweets real-time updates about battlefield operations
  • Its media arm stays in direct contact with journalists on a range of messaging apps

ISLAMABAD: Fighting “fake” news, wrestling with social media, and deploying an intern army — the Taliban’s sprawling propaganda machine embraces modernity even as the group vows to enforce Islamist controls on journalists if it returns to power.
Notorious for banning TV and radio under its iron-fisted 1996-2001 regime, the militants have proven surprisingly deft at adapting to the ever-changing nature of modern media.
The Taliban’s official spokesman now tweets real-time updates about battlefield operations and its media arm stays in direct contact with journalists on a range of messaging apps.
“Media is considered one side of the struggle,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP via Whatsapp.
“We are not against modern technology,” a senior Taliban source with links to the insurgents’ media wing told AFP.
“This is the need of the hour and using it is not against Islamic shariah.”
But the source admits his team struggles at times to control their own narrative.
High-profile interviews have taken place without the media wing’s knowledge, sparking hurried denials along with confusion over the identity of the interviewee and whether he can really claim to speak for the Taliban.
Unverified leaks to media outlets from alleged Taliban sources are frequent.
Fake or unauthorized accounts sprout often on social media, while their official Facebook pages and Twitter handles are regularly banned only to be restarted under another name.
Even the official spokesman, Mujahid, is widely believed to be not one man but a moniker used by the information wing to issue statements.
The operation can be dizzying, admits the Taliban source.
The increasingly refined production has not gone unnoticed, with NATO regularly briefing top officials on Taliban content.
“It gives us an idea of what the group is thinking about that day,” said Col. Knut Peters, spokesman for NATO’s Resolute Support mission in Kabul.
The casualty figures they release are often wildly exaggerated, but the group has been known to describe their operations more accurately, with fewer outlandish battlefield claims.
“The Taliban have discovered that truth has a greater impact than fiction,” said Graeme Smith, a consultant for International Crisis Group.
Journalists said insurgents are also often more responsive than the government.
“When a journalist was killed in Farah province, (a few) weeks back, I wrote to the Taliban spokesman, and I got the reply in minutes,” said A. Mujeeb Khalvatgar, the director of an Afghan media support group, who said he is still waiting for a statement from the president’s office.
Information remains difficult to verify, however. Pakistani senior journalist Tahir Khan, who showed AFP a stream of messages, photos and voice notes from the Taliban on his mobile phone, said the information was “not usually correct.”
But in a campaign like this, the battle for the truth might not matter. “This war... one major factor is psychological propaganda,” he added.
Its value is demonstrated by how high the media operation goes.
The Taliban leadership gives orders to a handful of high-ranking militants responsible for the group’s media strategy, the militant source said.
They work across five different language services — Pashto, Dari, English, Urdu and Arabic — with dozens of volunteers who produce multimedia content.
Print magazines target rural audiences without mobile phones, while slick propaganda videos and songs reach the illiterate.
The army of interns include journalism school students, along with IT experts who monitor the latest trends, the source claimed.
“They are servants of God, volunteers,” he said.
The Islamists maintained strict control over media during their brutal rule. Most foreign journalists fled the country, while Afghan reporters often worked undercover for fear of being violently harassed or accused of spying.
In the 17 years since the US invasion, Afghanistan’s media has flourished.
But their success has made them targets, starting in 2016, when the Taliban killed seven employees of popular TV channel Tolo — the first major attack on Afghan media since 2001.
Journalists have faced killings, attacks and abductions. In 2018 Afghanistan was ranked the most dangerous country for journalists in the world.
“Now (the Taliban are) using media a lot. It doesn’t mean they believe in freedom of expression,” said Khalvatgar.
“It means that they know how to use the media... as a propaganda tool, not as a right of the people.”
Meanwhile unprecedented talks between the Taliban and Washington have sparked fears of a potential US exit and a possible return to power for the insurgents.
The Taliban source said the group has no wish to shutter Afghan outlets — but journalists would have to comply with an unspecified “code of conduct” in line with Islamic shariah.
Female anchors, common in Afghanistan today, would not be allowed on camera.
“It’s better that they stay at home or join some other respectable profession,” said the Taliban source.
But foreign media would be welcomed, he claimed, unlike in the past.
“We sheltered Osama [bin Laden] and provided him all our respect because he was our guest,” he said.
“Everyone who comes from any other country will be our guest.”