Previous constitutions guaranteed freedom of expression as a basic right, but in practice this right was severely curtailed. Prepublication censorship, cancellation of registration for publication, and other similar restrictive regulations severely handicapped the freedom of the press, and journalists operated under constant threats of harassment and imprisonment. In 1960 the king decreed that all newspapers were required to obtain official clearance for reports of political activities. In 1962 a government-controlled news agency, Rashtriya Sambad Samity, was established to collect and distribute news about and within the country. The Samity monopoly continued until the success of the prodemocracy movement. In addition, provisions of the Freedom of Speech Publications Act of 1980 limited the publication of materials that might undermine the interests of sovereignty of the nation; contravene principles that underlie the constitution; or encourage, abet, or propagate party politics. This act was repealed in July 1990.
The constitution guarantees the freedom of the press as a fundamental right. It also prohibits the censoring of news items, articles, or any other reading materials and states that a press cannot be closed or seized for printing any news item, article, or any other reading materials. In addition, the registration of a newspaper or periodical cannot be cancelled for publishing offensive news articles or reading material. The operation of a free press is circumscribed, however, by vague restrictions against undermining the sovereignty and integrity of Nepal; disturbing the harmonious relations among the people of different castes, classes, or communities; violating decent public behavior morality; instigating crimes; or committing sedition or contempt of court. During the 1980s, several journalists were incarcerated and held without trial under the Public Security Act and the Treason Act.
The Nepalese press was supportive of the prodemocracy movement. When the government repressed the movement, the Central Committee of the Nepal Journalists Association, headed by Govinda Binyogi, issued a statement that declared all censorship, banning of newspapers, and arrests of journalists as illegal, unconstitutional, and undemocratic. The Nepal Journalists Association reported that between January and April 1990, forty journalists were arrested for comments criticizing the government. During the same period, several newspapers halted publication to protest the government's attempts at precensorship. More than ten papers had entire issues seized by government authorities when they ran articles considered overtly critical. Several newspapers were severely pressed financially after successive government seizures.
Since the momentous political changes of April 1990, freedom of the press has come into question only once, in November 1990, when authorities charged two reporters with slandering the royal family in print. Charges were dismissed in December following protests by the Nepal Journalist Association to the prime minister. An editor also was detained overnight in November 1990 for publishing insulting remarks against the queen, but charges were not pressed. As of mid-1991, there were no reports of the seizing or banning of foreign publications deemed to have carried articles unfavorable to the government or the monarchy.
In 1991 there were approximately 400 Nepalese newspapers and periodicals, including a dozen national dailies with a combined circulation of more than 125,000. The circulation of other newspapers, journals, and magazines was limited to only a few hundred copies each.
Except for two English dailies, Rising Nepal and Commoner, both published in Kathmandu, other widely circulating newspapers were published in Nepali. These included Gorkhapatra, Samichhya, Matribhumi, Rastra Pukar, Daily News, Samaya, and Janadoot. The number of publications in Hindi and Newari, however, was increasing in the late 1980s.
The daily Gorkhapatra and Rising Nepal were government organs. Before the success of the prodemocracy movement, both government dailies primarily provided coverage of official views, carried virtually no information on opposition activities, and muted criticism of the government. Nepal Raj Patra, the principal government publication since 1951, contained texts of laws, decrees, proclamations, and royal orders and was available in both English and Nepali.
Because of the government's near monopoly on domestic news, many newspaper readers relied on foreign publications. They relied on as Statesman, Times of India, and Hindustan Times--all from India--and the Pacific editions of Time, Newsweek, and China Today, published in India in Hindi, English, and Nepali.
Much of the fast proliferating printed matter was read only by a small elite and by government functionaries in the Kathmandu Valley. Staggeringly widespread illiteracy (about 33 percent of the population were literate in 1990), lack of a transport infrastructure, the general apathy of the rural people toward the affairs of Kathmandu--to which the press devoted a major share of coverage--and a general reliance on oral transmission of information rather than on the written word were among the factors that impeded the dissemination of publications. By April 1990, however, news coverage had broadened to reflect a wide range of views. Although in most circumstances editorial views reflected government policy, editors did at times exercise the right to publish critical views and alternative policies.
Electronic media consisted of radio and television programming controlled by the government. Radio Nepal broadcast on short-wave and medium-wave both in Nepali and English from transmitters in Jawalakhel and Khumaltar. Nepal Television Corporation broadcast twenty-three hours of programs per week from its station at Singha Durbar, Kathmandu. Transmitters also were located at Pokhara, Biratnagar, and Hetauda. Prior to the unrest of 1990, programming closely reflected the views of the government. Although coverage of government criticism remained inadequate, programming in 1991 reflected a broader range of interests and political views. The Voice of America, the British Broadcasting Corporation, and several other European and Asian networks were monitored in Nepal.
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