Nepal

By Kaley Hanson

Nepali flag, adopted on December 16, 1962

Nepali Flag, adopted on December 16, 1962

Introduction

Nepal, a relatively small country (compares to Arkansas in size) with the same population as Canada, has approximately 30 million inhabitants and comprises of 101 different ethnic groups.[i] Even though Nepali is the official language, over 90 different tongues are spoken. Nepal is a landlocked country, nestled within the Himalayan Mountains and bordered by two behemoth countries—China at its north and India in the south.[ii] Nepal is well known for having eight of the tallest mountains in the world, and especially for boasting the highest point on earth—Mount Everest, which is called Sagarmatha in Nepali and Chomolungma in Tibetan languages. It has also gained world-wide notoriety as being “the hashish capital of the world.”[iii] This seems to be paradoxical as only recently it reopened its borders to foreigners following 135 years of isolation and its long history of government suppression of human rights and freedoms.

It has been a long and tumultuous path to its present day level of freedom of speech reflected by the rating of 105 out of 167 countries by Reporters Without Borders on the World Press Freedom Index in 2015.[iv] This is a major improvement from 2005, just ten years previous, with a rating of 160. As indicated, their press freedoms have improved substantially, but have room for improvement and achieving the ideals set forth by the Global Campaign for Free Expression.

Historical Background

To understand a nation’s current political and cultural landscape, it is necessary to explore its roots of the past. Nepal’s history is steeped in religious and cultural influences as a result of its geographical location and its topographical regions. Even though it is the birthplace of Buddhism, from Siddhartha Gautama, a prince born of Nepali royalty and acclaimed founder in the 6th century, it still impacts the country today. Hinduism imported from neighboring India has perhaps even a stronger influence, especially with its caste system, patriarchal society and marginalization of women.

In general, religion is a very important and integral part of their culture in present day and the percentage of followers in the different religions are Hinduism (81%), Buddhism (11%), Islam (4%), and others (4%).[v] Nepal’s history is marked more with political determinants than religious ones.

From 1220-1769, the Mallas ruled for over 500 years and is considered to be the “Golden Era.” Nepal saw the introduction of art and architecture and numerous temples and palaces where picturesque squares were built. Surviving over the centuries, they are still admired and several in the Katmandu Valley monuments are listed by UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Then under the Shah’s rule, cities became more organized and the Kathmandu Valley was divided into three kingdoms, but the rest of Nepal saw little coordination and was loosely divided into approximately 50 principalities called Panchayats.

In 1769 in the kingdom of Ghorka, King Prithvi Narayan Shah overtook the other two kingdoms and moved his capital from Ghorka to Kathmandu, which still serves as the country’s central hub and ended the Malla reign and unified Nepal. Under the Shah’s directorship, Nepal expanded its boundaries that eventually led to a military conflict with the British. The two-year “Anglo-Nepali” war ended with victory for Britain. Following this painful defeat, Nepal closed its borders to foreigners from 1816-1951. Limiting information in and out of the country essentially stifled economic, political and cultural advancements. When other countries in the world were gaining in personal freedoms and rights, Nepal was regressing.

In 1846, a young and ambitious Chhetri noble named Jung Bahadur orchestrated the “Kot Massacre” and relegated the Shah dynasty to mere figureheads and consequently wielded a dictatorship, appointed himself the title of prime minster and changed his name to Rana. Shortly thereafter, he extended his title to king and decreed his family as “heredity power” and they became the new monarchy of Nepal. His reign lasted a little over a hundred years when, in 1950, in the Shah’s lineage, King Tibhuvan overthrew the Rana regime and proclaimed himself head of state. Following his death, his son King Mahendra assumed control and issued a new constitution in 1959 and the first democratic elections in Nepal were held. However, real power still remained with the king, and freewheeling political parties were not allowed.

From 1959-2008, Nepal was beset with the painful birthing of a viable democracy. They had virtually fifty years of intermittent struggle which included activists’ arrests, tortures, killings, and many government modifications. Then in 1972, Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev became the king of Nepal after the death of his father, and the monarchy’s dominant position in politics was well established.[vi] On May 28, 2008, Nepal was declared a “federal democratic republic by the newly elected Constituent Assembly.”[vii]

Nepal has undergone many dramatic changes with high human costs in the past decade, transitioning from an absolute monarchy to a federal democratic republic with three main powers: executive, judicial and legislative. In 2006, a series of events of nationwide popular protests, the abolition of the monarchy, the passage of a democratically oriented interim constitution, elections for a constituent assembly and an end to a decade-long Maoist insurgency resulted in the deaths of an estimated 13,000 people.[viii]

Free Speech

Following the ousted Rana rule, an interim government was handed the reigns and in 1951 the Nepal Act came into force. This act provided for a judiciary that was independent of the executive branches of the government. It guaranteed that the citizens of Nepal shall have, among others, the right to freedom of speech and expression. Eight years later a constitution was finally promulgated in 1959 which guaranteed personal and political fundamental rights. Perfect on paper but fell miserably short in actuality when King Mahendra utilized his “emergency powers” that rendered the Parliament all but futile as Nepal’s governing body. Practically, there was little progress with freedom of speech as outlined in the Nepal Act. Intellectual activities and the free expression of opinions remained limited and confined to the higher ranks of the caste hierarchy, namely, male Brahman, Chhetri and Newars. Nepal functioned as a social hierarchy under the absolute control of the king and Hindu polity with no “legal or constitutional recognition of ideas related to the concept of freedom of expression.”[ix]

A few years later in 1962, King Mahendra promulgated the constitution of what was called the “Party-less Panchayat Democracy.”[x] It was an incremental step towards the democratic freedoms indicated in the Constitution, but these freedoms were rigorously policed and thus constrained. Many activists and dissidents were either imprisoned, went missing or voluntarily exiled. “The judiciary on the whole did very little to protect the rights of dissenters.”[xi]

Undaunted and with undying persistence, the People’s Movement, called the Jana Andolan, put an end to the Panchayat system in 1990. Subsequently, the Nepali people promulgated a Constitution that finally recognized their sovereignty as supreme. A bicameral, multi-party political set-up was brought into existence by the Constitution of Nepal in 1990. This Constitution is a landmark document in the history of the country that guarantees the fundamental rights of the citizens of Nepal.[xii]

In 2012, as the world was commemorating International Human Rights Day, Nepal made headlines once again when they arrested and detained eight Tibetans and twenty-five Nepalis from the Himalayan region who were practicing their rights peacefully in a human rights rally. Their placards protested the treatment of Tibetan refugees. The government’s intimidating actions were in stark contradiction with its constitution which clearly states in Article 12:

“(3) Every citizen shall have the following freedoms:
(a) freedom of opinion and expression;
(b) freedom to assemble peaceably and without arms”[xiii]

Additionally, Ang Kaji Sherpa, general secretary of the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), in May 2012, publically threatened journalists because he felt they did not adequately report ethnic issues. “On May 20-22, during a national NEFIN general strike, NEFIN supporters attacked several journalists and vandalized journalists’ property. NEFIN officials stated they did not order the attacks but also did not retract Sherpa’s threatening comments.”[xiv]

Nepal has paid its price in full and can shelve its stained and storied path to democracy. Since the elections in 2013, Nepal is experiencing its best civil liberties climate to date.

Present

A leading democracy watchdog group, Freedom House, based in Washington, D.C. assesses and rates countries around the world on political rights and civil liberties. In 2015 Nepal received a 3, meaning partly free, but still an improvement from a year ago of 4. The rating is based on a numerical scale from 1 to 7, with 1 reflecting totally free to 7 indicating not free.

Not only are journalists constantly bombarded with threats, the plight of Tibetan refugees in Nepal has not improved and currently the government has imposed strict limitations regarding their freedom of speech thwarting peaceful rallies and even going to the extent of forbidding their participating in benign public celebrations.

Electronic communication has begun to spread in Nepal but there have been no reports to indicate illegal infringement on the public by the government. Additionally, there is no limiting on Internet Access. According to the Nepal Telecommunications Authority, “Internet penetration was nearly 20 percent as of October.”[xv]

Free Press

Reporters Without Borders in March 2002 described Nepal as the “largest journalist jail in the world.”[xvi] As old habits die hard yet again on the heels of the newly crafted Constitution, there was an increase in the number of media-related arrests. Many journalists, since 2001, especially those who worked outside of Kathmandu, often were harassed and threatened by local state officials (such as the chief district officer) and military officers. They had been chastised (by phone or in person) for publishing news reports that were “critical to state officers and the security forces.”[xvii]

During the Rana period, there was little to no freedom of expression to speak about, nor mass media that had large readership. Gorkhapatra was a state-run newspaper founded in 1901 with readership primarily in the Kathmandu area, in large part due to the high illiteracy rate in the rural areas, along with Nepal’s topography making distribution economically not feasible. However, opposition to Rana rule, speech began to be expressed in the 1920’s from Nepalis living in safe-haven India and published there as well, yet saw little distribution in Nepal as the government censored the import of such material. The print media continued to experience repression and control under King Mahendra’s government, which legislated the General Security Act in 1961, which was designed to stifle any political opposition.

Slowly, as Nepal becomes more modernized, there is a significantly corresponding growth in media expansion mainly in radio broadcasting. In particular, the addition of schools from a paltry 300 schools in 1950 to 40,000 in 2000, and a rapidly growing population from 8 million to 25 million people in the same period.

Along with this growth, most markedly in the 1990’s, Nepal’s independent media exercised robustly their new opportunity of a relatively nonrestrictive expression, largely as a result of the 1990 Constitution that included protective rights of freedom of expression, information, privacy and press and publication rights and the growth in state-wide educational facilities.

The see-saw of gaining and losing free press rights plays out once again as King Gyanendra in 2005 declared a state of emergency and the media was choked. The censorship was presented to Nepali’s Supreme Court and despite it declaring the government’s suppression illegal, a ban on broadcasting freely was still in effect. Moreover, police attacked broadcast stations and journalists lives and livelihood came under threat and duress. Civil unrest and conflict ensued and the power of social media aided a successful revolt against the King. Along with resolving the civil conflict, the monarchical system collapsed and the prioritization of free media and the renovation of prior restrictive laws.[xviii]

Despite the Media Policy crafted in 2012, guaranteeing the safety of journalists is a key objective to ensure free information. Attacks on the media continued vigorously in 2013 with a litany of intimidations from political parties and their youth wings, security bodies, government officials and the like.[xix] They included vandalizing of press vehicles, obstruction, and the burning of newspapers along with death threats and other forms of fear tactics. “These incidents directly restricted press freedom and journalists’ right to report independently and free from fear, and deprived citizens of their access to information.” [xx]

Unrelenting, activists and their cohorts did not acquiesce and Nepal’s press contingent began to experience the fruits of their toil with a substantial decline in impingements. Freedom Forum recorded a total of 59 incidents of press freedom violations in 2013, compared with 147 in 2012 and 96 in 2011.

Present

As a result of feeling more protected, respected, safe and most significantly seeing a decrease in government interference, the Nepali media increased coverage of abuses of power and corruption and demanded accountability and thereby helped the fledgling democracy make great strides.

A glaring void in true representation of the entire nation of Nepali people is still influenced by its historical roots, traditions and religion. Most of the media is based and thus consequently represents myopically and serves the interests of the Kathmandu area. Furthermore the majority of journalists across all forms of media are male.

Critical Comparison

Although the United States ranks 49 out of 180 countries for press freedoms, it still shows higher freedoms for people than in Nepal, which ranks a 105 in 2015, based on the ratings from Reporters Without Borders.[xxi] Since 1992, eight journalists in Nepal were killed whereas only four were killed in the United States.[xxii] While the United States ranks a 1 out of 7, 1 representing the most free and 7 the least free, Nepal ranks at a 3.5; the U.S. is considered free where Nepal is considered partly free.[xxiii]

The United States has taken great pride in its hard-fought Revolution of 1776 and the First Amendment is treasured immensely reflected by it being one the most quoted pieces of any kind of literature in America today. Americans see it as important as oxygen. Additionally, the nuances are constantly being debated and challenged at all levels of government—the judiciary system, educational institutions and people of all ages. It is synonymous with its very identity as a nation, whereas this ardent political fervor of protecting the rights and freedom of speech is not evident in Nepali culture. Perhaps because democracy is still in its infancy in Nepal and free speech has yet to yield its liberating fruit of enhancing the quality of life on both economic and personal fronts as the stranglehold of social and religious traditions steeped in centuries of habit are not yet completely released.

Nonetheless, America, as of late, has seen some very public challenges in freedom of speech as indicated with the recent race-related protests and subsequent police breaking up these rallies in Ferguson, where an unarmed African-American boy, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a local police officer. Consequently, protests and riots ensued and the police officers were threatened both verbally and physically by the protesters. The police officers felt that their lives were threatened and, in response, fired rubber bullets and tear gas to break up the gatherings, justifying their oppressive actions as protecting innocent bystanders and the neighborhood and to ensure no looting or violent and illegal activities ensued. Can this be considered a violation of the First Amendment of the right to free speech?

Similarly in Nepal, “Police assaulted and arrested trade unionists who held meetings and protests against the government’s issuance of an over-reaching list of “essential services” in which strikes were banned (including all newspapers and TV stations, all transportation sectors, hotels, motels and other tourism workplaces and many more). The government banned union meetings and confiscated union banners and communications.”[xxiv]

Another area of great difference between the two countries is in the United States burning the flag or similar act that opposes the government, although distasteful my the vast majority, it is seen as a First Amendment right as indicated in the very public case of Texas v. Johnson, whereas in Nepal, it is unheard of to make such a brazen challenge to their constitution. In the American court case of Texas v. Johnson, Gregory Johnson in 1984 burned the American flag. Subsequently, the case went to the Supreme Court and ruled in Johnson’s favor stating that the “government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society itself finds the idea offensive or disagreeable. Even if the desecration of the flag offended some, the flag itself represents the freedom this country has to offer.”[xxv]

Conclusion

In general terms, there is a narrower gap between the Constitutional verbiage and the actuality of free press and speech freedoms in America than with Nepal. On the world stage the United States is often associated with being the flagship for freedom of speech both professionally and personally. This perceived assessment translates to the high numbers of immigration requests to the States in pursuit of the iconic phrase—the “American Dream.” In contrast there is little interest in immigrating to Nepal, other than refugees from neighboring Tibet and China.

Both nation’s constitutions guarantees the protection of freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but the United States enjoys a much broader spectrum of diverse media, from a plethora of print and electronic mediums to a vast array of artistic and intellectual outlets with no geographical dominance or limitations. Whereas in Nepal, the press mainly concentrated in the Kathmandu area exercises it’s the freedom of expression to a much greater extent than the rural areas. As well, Nepal has considerable room for improvement across the civil liberties board. In defense of Nepal’s status, it has only had a relatively short time to hone the promotion and protection of the freedom of speech and press while America has had over 200 years to achieve its lofty place on the human freedoms and rights podium.

 

[i] Gaige, F. H. (1975). Geopolitics of the Tarai. Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal. (pp. 17). California, USA: University of California Press.

[ii] Whelpton, J. (2005). Nepal under the Shamsher Ranas, 1885-1951. A History of Nepal (pp. 225). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[iii] Elliot, S. (June 2012). Nepal Makes Largest Marijuana Bust in History. Toke of the Town: cannabis news, views, rumor and humor. http://www.tokeofthetown.com/2012/06/nepal_makes_largest_marijuana_bust_in_history.php

[iv] Press Freedom Index (2005 and 2015). Reporters Without Borders. http://en.rsf.org/spip.php?page=classement&id_rubrique=549

[v] (2011). Countries of the World: and Their Leaders Yearbook 2012 (pp. 1611). Michigan, USA: Gale.

[vi] Rose, L. E., Scholz, J. T. (1980). Nepal: Environment and History. Nepal: Profile of a Himalayan Kingdom (pp. 3). Colorado, USA: Westview Press, Inc.

[vii] General Historical Information on Nepal (2012). Visit Nepal. http://www.visitnepal.com/nepal_information/history.php

[viii] Countries at the Crossroads: Nepal (2010). Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/countries-crossroads/2010/nepal#.VSgQn2PfymA

[ix] Asia Thematic Reports (May, 2005). War of Words: Conflict and Freedom of Expression in South Asia. XIX Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression. http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/asia-war-of-words.pdf

[x] Burghart, R. (1993). The Political Culture of Panchayat Democracy. Nepal in the Nineties (pp. 1). Oxford University Press.

[xi] Asia Thematic Reports (May, 2005). War of Words: Conflict and Freedom of Expression in South Asia. XIX Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression. http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/asia-war-of-words.pdf

[xii] Asia Thematic Reports (May, 2005). War of Words: Conflict and Freedom of Expression in South Asia. XIX Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression. http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/asia-war-of-words.pdf

[xiii] Provision of Free Press under the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2063 for 2006 (April 10, 2015). Press Council Nepal. http://www.presscouncilnepal.org/pressandconstitution.php

[xiv] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (April 19, 2013). 2012 Human Rights Reports: Nepal. U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action. http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2012/sca/204407.htm

[xv] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (April 19, 2013). 2012 Human Rights Reports: Nepal. U.S. Department of State: Diplomacy in Action. http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2012/sca/204407.htm

[xvi] Asia Thematic Reports (May, 2005). War of Words: Conflict and Freedom of Expression in South Asia. XIX Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression. http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/asia-war-of-words.pdf

[xvii] Asia Thematic Reports (May, 2005). War of Words: Conflict and Freedom of Expression in South Asia. XIX Article 19: Global Campaign for Free Expression. http://www.article19.org/data/files/pdfs/publications/asia-war-of-words.pdf

[xviii] Palacio, A. S. (December 5, 2013). Freedom of Expression, Media and Law in Nepal. WordPress: South Asia Jurist. http://southasiajurist.com/2013/12/05/freedom-of-expression-media-and-law-in-nepal/

 

[xix] Palacio, A. S. (December 5, 2013). Freedom of Expression, Media and Law in Nepal. WordPress: South Asia Jurist. http://southasiajurist.com/2013/12/05/freedom-of-expression-media-and-law-in-nepal/

[xx] State of press freedom in Nepal sees some improvement in 2013 (January 3, 2014). Ifex. https://www.ifex.org/nepal/2014/01/03/press_freedom_report/

[xxi] Press Freedom Index (2005 and 2015). Reporters Without Borders. http://en.rsf.org/spip.php?page=classement&id_rubrique=549

[xxii] (2015) 1121 Journalists killed since 1992. CPJ: Committee to Protect Journalists. https://cpj.org/killed/

[xxiii] Freedom in the World: Nepal (2015). Freedom House. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2015#.VSz9wPnF_1Y

[xxiv] Compa, L. A. (June, 2013). A Position Paper of the International Trade Union Confederation. Free Speech and Freedom of Association: Finding the Balance. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1270&context=intl

[xxv] Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397 (1989)

 

(This essay was last updated on April 30, 2015.)

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