After the executive, legislature restricts media’s accessAt least two parliamentary committees have refused to allow journalists to cover their meetings, while both the Prime Minister’s Office and Home Ministry have also imposed restrictions.
In May last year, when the parliamentary State Affairs and Good Governance Committee barred media from its meeting, there was widespread outcry among mediapersons, who accused committee Chairperson Shashi Shrestha of attempting to curb press freedom and the right to information.
Almost a year later, Purna Kumari Subedi, a lawmaker and former deputy speaker, has followed in Shrestha’s footsteps, refusing to allow reporters to cover meetings of the Agriculture, Cooperatives and Natural Resources Committee, which she heads.
On February 14, Subedi asked mediapersons to leave immediately after they took photos and videos of the meeting, saying the committee wished to discuss “internal matters”. The same day, Shrestha once again denied reporters access to her House committee meeting which was to discuss suggestions of a task force made up of lawmakers Dilendra Prasad Badu, Rekha Sharma and Nawaraj Silwal to look into the complaints regarding former Army chief Rajendra Chhetri’s property.
On December 14, too, the State Affairs and Good Governance Committee did not allow journalists to cover its meeting, saying “it was confidential”.
At a time when the executive is increasingly curtailing the media’s access to information regarding its activities, the legislature’s attempts to restrict the flow of information are worrying, say rights activists.
Access to the Prime Minister’s Office and a number of ministries, including the Home Ministry, has already been significantly restricted to journalists. The Prime Minister’s Office alleged that a journalist had misbehaved with a secretary when justifying the restrictions.
An official at the Prime Minister’s Office, however, said that journalists have not been restricted and that officials are just trying to put a system in place.
“Journalists are allowed; they just need to inform the concerned official that they want to meet,” the official said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
Subedi, chairperson of the Agriculture, Cooperatives and Natural Resources Committee, argues that she only asked reporters to leave after briefing them on the agenda of the meeting, which was regarding internal discussions.
“What could be such a serious issue of discussion at the agriculture committee to restrict access to the media?” said Radheshyam Adhikary, a Nepali Congress lawmaker in the Upper House. “Even if Parliament comes up with a rule restricting the media’s access, it should not be implemented.”
According to Gopal Nath Yogi, secretary at the House of Representatives, there is no such rule restricting the media’s access to parliamentary committees.
Such restrictions from the executive and legislature on journalists could hamper independent reporting, say activists.
“Parliamentary committees are already beyond the reach of the people and denying entry to journalists could deprive the public of their right to information,” said Taranath Dahal, chief of Freedom Forum, a civil liberties group. “I wonder if the legislature has come under the executive’s shadow.”
According to Dahal, it would be unfortunate if the legislature is under any kind of pressure from the executive, as that would go against the principle of separation of powers.
Restricting journalists would also go against the constitution, which ensures full press freedom in the preamble, said P Kharel, a veteran journalist and journalism professor.
“As far as the House committees are concerned, there could be restrictions at times, but it should be on a case-by-case basis,” said Kharel. “Some issues could be classified and confidential when there is a risk of communal violence or a threat to national security.”
But blanket restrictions on journalists entering the Prime Minister’s Office and the Home Ministry stem from the arrogance of a government that boasts of a two-thirds majority, he said.
“Basically, the intent is bad,” Kharel told the Post.
Press freedom activists have long been saying that legislation related to the media and information technology should also be viewed from the point of intent rather than provisions.
Free flow of information and ideas is a cornerstone of democracy, and its control threatens democratic principles.
“A very strong government, combined with a bar on access to information, can be dangerous,” said Kharel. “Journalists, rights organisations and opposition parties must raise such issues strongly.”
The opposition Nepali Congress has duly criticised the government’s restrictions on the grounds that they restrict the people’s right to information.
“It’s serious when two major organs of the state infringe on the people’s right to information,” said Pushpa Bhusal, the Congress’ whip. “Parliamentary activities must be transparent.”
Criticism has not been limited to the opposition. Even ruling party leaders are uncomfortable with the government’s increasing control over the free flow of information, especially regarding its dealings.
Rachana Khadka, a central committee member of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, said that such restrictions, if intended to restrict information, are unacceptable.
“The government must ensure easy access to all kinds of information for journalists,” Khadka told the Post. “But sometimes people who appear before the committees refuse to speak in front of the media. During such instances, the parliamentary committees could ask the media to respect these individuals’ right to privacy.”
The ruling Nepal Communist Party has long been wary of the media, with the legislature, where the party has a near two-thirds majority, coming up with a number of bills aimed at restricting press freedom, both in print and online. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli has repeatedly taken issue with the media’s coverage of his administration, saying editors lacked “heart”.
Access to the media during the meetings of parliamentary committees was implemented right after the restoration of democracy in 1990 by the Public Accounts Committee. The chairperson of that committee was Subas Nembang, who is currently a senior leader in the ruling party.
Officials at the Parliament Secretariat too believe that media’s access cannot be restricted unless there are serious issues affecting national security and integrity.
“It’s a foolish move on the part of parliamentary committees,” said a secretary from the federal parliament on condition of anonymity. “All parliamentary practices, including access to the media, must be followed as a rule.”