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“A censored media cripples democracy”

May 13, 2011

RTI activists Taranath Dahaland Tanka Aryal of Nepal speak to OneWorld about democracy and media freedom on their recent trip to India. Free access to information they say can meet the challenges of transparency and accountability in the newly-democratic nation.

Taranath-dahal.jpgOneWorld: The implementation of RTI is weak in Nepal despite it being a fundamental right. What are the possible reasons behind this?

Taranath Dahal: The Right To Information Act in Nepal was enacted in 2007 whereby it was given the status of a fundamental right in the Constitution of Nepal. But over the years, the implementation has been poor which prevented it from fully blooming into a tool for accountability and transparency in the hands of ordinary citizens.

Many factors have been in play. The political system of Nepal is in a transitional phase. Democracy is in its nascent stage. In 2008 Nepal legally abolished the monarchy and declared the country a republic, ending 239 years of royal rule. A constitution does exist but society is still getting accustomed to the ways of democracy. RTI thus has not been fully realised in the transitional political system of Nepal. 

The second hurdle is that the government seems more concerned about passing the law rather than implementing it. In absence of pressure groups, it does little to ensure the tool’s effective implementation.

The third reason is lack of awareness in the public domain. People are not yet familiar with the realization of their rights. They are ignorant about the fact that there is a tool at their disposal that can bring accountability in governance. The issue of awareness generation has also been sidelined by the RTI movement led by journalists and civil society organisations in Nepal.

OW: Freedom Forum recently organised a national convention on RTI in Kathmandu that focused on freedom of information. Any comments?

TD: The national convention on right to information has been a great success in creating a platform to improve the implementation of the Act. In the presence of government information officers, civil society organisations and regional advisors, issues of policy-making and law were discussed. Members exchanged information, experiences, challenges and vision on RTI in their country. The convention was vital to create a vibrant environment for effective implementation of the Act.

OW: Media freedom and working conditions of journalists have improved in Nepal but the situation is far from good. As chairperson of the Freedom Forum, what do you think are the current status, challenges and implications for news and media in Nepal?

TD: Constitutionally and legally, the media in Nepal is free and there are no restrictions on the freedom of information and media rights. They are free to express their views in public. However, there is no legal cover to protect the freedom of speech in Nepal.

There are a lot of challenges to media freedom in Nepal. Journalists are often attacked and intimidated and the state shrugs off any responsibility to protect them. The constant fear of life has forced Nepal’s media into self-censorship. They are scared to offer facts and analyses of what is happening in society. 

Besides these, non-state factors also threaten media freedom. Last year three media persons were killed. The guilty haven’t been detained yet. Impunity among the perpetrators of crimes adds to the fear-factor among the media. As a result, important information fails to reach the public. A censored media cripples democracy.

OW: What role do media and journalism play in the digital age which has broadened the media landscape?

TD: The role of media has expanded with the coming of new technologies. The digital age enables access to massive data. Media should enhance their role by providing access to information in the public domain. Media should be responsible enough to investigate information and come up with in-depth analysis of the information in public interest. 

Media in Nepal should raise awareness on the rights of the citizens. These new technologies do enhance but do not ensure media freedom that is necessary to ensure the rights of the citizens.

Tanka AryalOW: Please throw some light on the work of Citizen’s Campaign for RTI in Nepal?

Tanka Aryal: Citizen’s Campaign for Right to Information (CCRI) is an NGO in Nepal working to ensure effective implementation of the RTI Act. Once the law was passed in 2007, we started our work as a non-governmental organisation.

Our agenda is to implement the RTI Act properly, build pressure on the government to take initiative on RTI, and raise public awareness on it as a tool for governance and accountability.

A network of connections with other NGOs and agencies assist us in raising public awareness on the issue. Through a vibrant network of community radios in Nepal, we produce and broadcast radio programmes that provide information on how to use the RTI tool effectively.

CCRI also works to ensure that local authorities are trained about their roles and responsibilities with regard to the RTI Act. Every public agency is required to appoint a Public Information Officer to maintain information and deal with the information requests of the people. However, in absence of stringent laws, PIOs are not appointed at all and even if they are appointed, they are ill-trained to carry out their duties.

So, we have a dual role. We have been raising awareness on the Act in the public domain and also training PIOs to streamline their duties with the implementation of the Act. CCRI has association with the National Information Commission of Nepal which oversees and protects the Right to Information Act.

Thus the work of CCRI can be summarised in three tiers: a) raising awareness among the public; b) capacity building of the Public Information Officers; and c) assisting stakeholders in the implementation of the RTI Act.

OW: Tell us about your recent trip to India, especially Bihar.

TA: Dahal and I recently visited India as part of the World Bank project on Access to Information. The project explores technological solutions to make information accessible to common people in developing countries.

During the trip, it was overwhelming to see the vehement use of technology in Bihar to improving governance and promoting access to information through inexpensive, simple applications. The scheme of SMS based monitoring system and Jaankari by the Bihar government is a tremendous success in improving governance. We are impressed, encouraged and excited about promoting these technologies in our country.

The exchange of information and ideas during the visit will be used to improve governance, enhance public access to information and streamline public delivery systems in Nepal.

Prominent journalist and RTI pioneer Taranath Dahal is Chairperson of Freedom Forum and President of the Citizens' Campaign for Right to Information (CCRI), a civil society network working for the cause of RTI in Nepal.

Tanka Aryal is an advocate and the General Secretary of CCRI.

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