Not so freeAlthough Nepal recognises the right to information, journalists are not able to investigate issues properly
Since the 1991 Declaration of Windhoek, May 3 has been marked as the World Press Freedom Day to assess the situation of press freedom all around the globe and to defend its independence. The day also pays tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession. Marking this day gives an opportunity for the media and concerned stakeholders to inform citizens about the violations against press freedom. The day is also a reminder of many instances of obstruction to media freedom all around the world. In some countries, news is censored and journalists are fined and suspended for doing their job, which is writing the truth. On this day in particular, media, development organisations including the UN condemn harassment, attacks, detention and murder against journalists. This day encourages concerned stakeholders to develop initiatives in support of media freedom and reminds state agencies of their commitment to press freedom. This year, the day is being celebrated with the slogan, ‘Access to information and fundamental freedoms: This is your right’.
Freedom of information is a fundamental freedom and covers the right to seek, receive and impart information. The right to impart information is an exercise of making public a piece of information; this is directly related to the notion of press freedom. Media disseminate information to thousands of dispersed and heterogeneous people in a fast and reliable manner. The dimension of right to information contributes to a free press; it is highly significant for the assurance of other fundamental rights.
In particular, freedom of information shows the level of transparency maintained by the state and public agencies. The limitations imposed on the process of imparting information restrict the free flow of information. The recently declared Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) too have a number of issues concerning access to information. The SDG Goal 16 states “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” Additionally, freedom of expression as a whole is vital to achieving Goal 16, target 10: “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.”
In the case of Nepal
Assurance of freedom of information is key to attaining participatory democracy and good governance. It permits public scrutiny and oversight and ensures their participation and empowerment. Currently around 90 nations have adopted freedom of information laws. Nepal introduced the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2007 and formulated regulations in 2009 along with the establishment of National Information Commission (NIC) as an independent body to oversee the implementation of the RTI Act. However, the implementation of the right to information in Nepal remains sluggish due to many reasons including limited capacity of the NIC, non-responsive public bodies and recklessness of the bureaucrats. Ordinary citizens have yet to enhance their bargaining power in terms of seeking information from the public entities. Awareness programmes on the right to information by the civil society have failed to reach the grassroots.
Despite the fact that Nepal recognises right to information as a tool to maintain transparency in public bodies and ensure the public’s right to know, the public in general and the journalists in particular are not able to investigate issues in detail. Corruption, misuse of government resources, and abuse of power, mismanagement and misconduct within the government offices are rampant and increasing. Extreme gap between the haves and the have-nots and limited mass awareness about the instruments on right to information are the major reasons behind the slowness in the empowerment of the marginalised and socially excluded groups. There is a pressing need to engage these groups in the process of development and to create a just society. Journalists have a bigger role to play in this regard. They can utilise right to information tools while doing their job, especially when digging up information in cases of corruption and fraud.
Need for transparency
A case of the successful utilisation of the RTI Act about a murdered journalist is worth discussing. Journalist Ramjee Dahal sought information with original bills and expenditure details of a probe commission formed to investigate the murder of journalist JP Joshi. He appealed to the NIC after the Ministry of Home refused to provide information. He was provided with all original bills and expenditure details following an order by the commission. The 485-page-long document that he received revealed how the authorities were engaged in corruption.
Access to information and media freedom are essential to democracy, equality and sustainable development. Journalists play a vital role in actualising the right to information in the interest of citizens; they empower citizens with information. Yet, it is not an easy task to collect information from the authorities engaged in corruption. There is also a need to improve the working environment for journalists. In particular, their safety concerns have to be addressed for them to engage in investigative journalism. This will help to develop a culture of openness and access to information in the country.
Pant is the Chairperson of Media Action Nepal