Environmental defenders at risk, journalists targeted and concerns around new cyber security policy: CIVICUS report


Kathmandu, Oct 3: The state of civic space in Nepal is rated as 'obstructed' by the CIVICUS Monitor –a research tool that provides close to real-time data on the state of civil society and civic freedoms in 196 countries.     

The data, as the report states, is generated through documented violations of fundamental freedoms that include arbitrary arrests and the use of excessive force with impunity during protests, as well as the ongoing targeting of journalists, including through harassment, attacks and criminalisation.     

According to the report, a landmark Supreme Court ruling on 28th June 2023 cleared the way for same-sex couples to legally register their marriages and for marriage equality in the country. Although Nepal’s civil code currently describes marriage as being between a man and a woman, the court ordered the government to immediately begin registering same-sex marriages while it prepares legislation to amend the law.     

In August 2023, UN experts criticized a bill to amend Nepal’s transitional justice law that would make it impossible to hold to account those responsible for serious crimes committed during the 1996-2006 conflict. The UN experts said the bill is in breach of the government’s international legal obligations, as well as the rulings of Nepal’s Supreme Court.     

In recent months, a report was published highlighting the climate of fear among environmental human rights defenders. Harassment, threats and attacks against journalists persist while a new cyber security policy raises concerns for internet freedom, the report notes.     

Climate of fear persists among environmental human rights defenders     

A study in June 2023 published by the Informal Sector Service Centre for Human Rights and Social Justice (INSEC) says Nepalis working for the protection of the environment continue to feel unsafe due to the lack of government security mechanisms.     

The researchers on the study interviewed 51 respondents in the provinces of Sudurpaschim, Lumbini and Madhesh and found that most activists working to protect the environment don’t identify as “environmental human rights defenders” (EHRDs) and were not aware of the role of EHRDs as outlined by the United Nations.     

Extractive industries such as sand mining and the timber trade have emerged as major environmental challenges in Nepal in recent decades, mainly due to lax government monitoring and enforcement.     

The report highlights that Nepal doesn’t have specific legislation to define who EHRDs are, their work, or the measures of protection they need. This impedes their access to speedy justice and help from law enforcement.Existing EHRD networks and coalitions are insignificant and discussions among members on topics including security are limited, the report states.     

"In addition to this, women EHRDs were found to be more likely to experience domestic violence and sexual assault because of their work, especially in community forests".     

Detention, harassment, threats and attacks against journalists     

There have been continued reports of harassment and threats against journalists, according to the report.     

On 21st June 2023, Swasthayalive.com editor Sunil Sapkota was attacked by a group in Anamnagar, a suburb of Kathmandu, according to the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ). One attacker was identified as Hari Giri, the subject of an April 2021 article published while Sapkota was working with the Nagarik Daily. The piece claimed that Giri had fraudulently registered two pieces of public land in his name, one of which he managed to sell, with the allegations corroborated by reports from Nepal’s Department of Survey and Commission and the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority. Giri’s deeds over the land have since been revoked.     

On 27th June 2023, ABC Television Pokhara reporter and FNJ working committee member Geeta Rana was abused and briefly detained while recording the officer of the central Bhirkot Municipality for a documentary. The FNJ reported that the Municipality’s Chief Administrative Officer and police proceeded to confront Rana, subjecting the journalist to verbal abuse, and deleting all photos and video from her devices. Rana managed to leave after she had been confined to the office for an hour.     

Photojournalist and activist RK Adipta Giri has been targeted for his critical post on social media on 8th August. An arrest warrant was issued by the police in Parbat, Gandaki Province. Giri had been conducting a campaign named ‘Save Kaligandaki river’for more than three years. He had observed activities of the authorities and journalists involved in encroachment of the river and natural resources in Parbat. A complaint was filed against him demanding he be arrested under the Electronic Transaction Act Section 47 and he also faced threats.     

Freelance journalist Krishna Prasad Subedi was detained by a recruitment agency following a report he published about human trafficking. Subedi has been writing news and articles on human trafficking in Nepal for Nepali media for more than five years. He also runs an official Facebook account named Anticorruption Nepal where he shares his articles and news. On 15th August 2023, Subedi shared an article about human trafficking by a recruitment agency in Nepal. Following this, he was detained for nine hours on 30th August. Agency staff and board members seized his diary, mobile phone and press identity card. Moreover, they forced him to sign papers stating he would not write any news on the recruitment agency. He subsequently filed complaints with the police and National Human Rights Commission.     

On 21st September 2023, Freedom Forum reported that Shankar Pahadi, a reporter for Rastriya Samachar Samiti (RSS) and Sagarmath Television, was receiving death threats after publishing a report about the Department of Revenue Investigation sealing a warehouse of a local businessman for evading tax. The businessman and relatives had threatened to shoot Pahadi. They also posted abusive and misleading posts about Pahadi on their social media pages.     

New Cyber Security Policy raises concerns for internet freedom     

According to Article 19, in early August 2023, Nepal’s cabinet approved a new National Cyber Security Policy. While an earlier draft version in 2021 had been shared for limited public consultation, the recently approved policy introduces new provisions that raise serious concern for internet freedom.     

The stakeholders pointed out that despite earlier recommendations, the new policy remains vague in critical areas and fails to acknowledge the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.     

ARTICLE 19 stated that among its particularly concerning provisions was “Strategy 11.25” which proposes a government owned intranet and the establishment of a national internet gateway. While the current policy offers no further definitions, if Nepal’s national internet gateway is modeled on others in the region it would mean centralising control of all internet traffic in and out of the country through a government appointed operator, potentially supercharging surveillance and censorship capabilities while leaving open very serious questions about data privacy and protection, and the risk of criminal penalties for telecommunication companies.     

Teachers protest an education reform bill     

On 22nd September 2023, thousands of teachers protested in the capital, Kathamandu against an education reform bill in parliament.     

The teachers oppose provisions that would shift government-run schools to local control, saying it would lower their status, and that would scrap many temporary teacher positions. The law would also ban teachers joining groups with political affiliations.     

The teachers blocked the main street leading from the parliament building to key government ministries, disrupting traffic in the heart of the capital. Hundreds of police in riot gear blocked the road leading to parliament with barbed-wire barricades.     

The protest had led to the closure of about 29,000 public schools attended by millions of students across the country. Private schools remained open.     

Protest by doctors against attacks on medical personnel     

Doctors staged a protest against attacks on medical personnel in September 2023. Doctors from various medical institutes staged a peaceful protest on 26th September 2023 against the recent assault on doctors in Manipal Hospital, Pokhara.     

The attacked occurred after a 57-year old women died while undergoing treatment at the Pokhara-based hospital. The relatives of the Lumjung local had physically assaulted doctors and medical staff following the incident. While the accused are yet to be identified, police have taken one person into custody for further investigation.     

The protesting doctors demanded immediate implementation of the Security of the Health Workers and Health Organisations Act (First Amendment) 2022.     

Doctors at the Manipal Hospital have also announced the discontinuation of services at the hospital until the accused are charged.

How did you feel after reading this news?