On Wednesday, the government ‘quietly’ registered the Media Council bill in Parliament. The bill, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, aims to replace the old Press Council Act 2048. However, as details of the bill started to emerge, the government has been facing a lot of criticism from stakeholders and journalists citing it could jeopardise press freedom.
Here we explain the stands of government and the media sector about the controversial bill.
The journalists’ argument
It seems the government chose to register the bill ‘quietly’ so that it could avoid any controversy from concerned stakeholders. However, that didn’t go unnoticed. Media outlets found out about and reported how the new bill will have more authority to issue hefty fines and give the government more say in the hiring and firing of the council members.
The government did so by bypassing a critical consultation phase with stakeholders and the public, which didn’t go down well with journalists and media houses.
Journalists and their organisations including the Federation of Nepali Journalists believe that the government is trying to regulate journalism in the country taking them back to the monarchy period.
They also argue that the government can use the newly formed agency to misuse their power because of the ministry’s role in hiring and firing committee members.
Journalists add that the nonrestrictive provisions in the bill allow anyone who feels that a report violates press ethics to file a complaint against the reporter, editor or publisher. The bill doesn’t state that the person concerned should be the one who files the report.
The proposed bill aims to give sweeping powers to the self-regulatory body overseeing the press, and information rights activists and journalists have been saying that the new council could increase direct attacks on the press.
The bill proposes confiscation of media equipment and slapping fines of up to Rs 10 million and 15 years in jail for media persons found publishing offensive content undermining national sovereignty, geographical, integrity or nationality.
Many believe that this is harsh as Section 49 (5) of the Criminal Code proposes only five years in jail and Rs 50,000 fine for a similar offence.
The bill also states that a journalist will be fined with Rs 500,000 if s/he is found to be jeopardising harmony between the federal units or communities or religions.
Contents provoking contempt of court or treason could also land journalists in trouble as they could face a jail term of up to 10 and/or Rs 1.5 million in penalties.
The existing law states that Nepal Press Council could ask for clarification, apology, blacklist certain press organisations and ask the concerned person to go to the court for compensation.
However, the new bill aims to give the council an authority to issue monetary punishment ranging from Rs 25,000 and up to Rs one million. The provisions in the proposed bill will also give the council a greater power to write to the concerned authority to take action against media organisations if they violate press ethics as defined by the government.
Section 18 (2) of the bill stipulates that the council can order the erring parties to pay compensation if the content in media outlets damages the reputation of the affected party. However, the compensation sum hasn’t been determined.
Section 17 proposes punishment for violating the code of conduct which includes suspension of press pass of media persons and downgrading of the classification of print media outlets.
Response from stakeholders
In reaction to the controversial bill, the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) held an interaction programme at Reporters’ Club on Sunday to discuss what was wrong with the bill.
Speaking at the programme, General Secretary of the FNJ Ramesh Bista demanded withdrawal of the bill reasoning it had spread fear among journalists by provisioning penalty up to Rs 1 million and 15 years of imprisonment.
Likewise, Nepal Press Union President Badri Sigdel expressed solidarity with protest against the bill terming it as motivated by the intention of curtailing freedom of press. He also demanded that some provisions of the bill that are against press freedom be scrapped.
However, Chairperson of Nepal Press Organisation Maheshwor Dahal said that the bill would not affect press freedom. He added that the bill would help stop unethical journalism.
The government’s response
Minister Gokuk Prasad Baskota has assured that the Media Council Bill was being brought for the greater good of journalists. Speaking at a press conference organised by Press Chautari Nepal and Press Center Nepal on Sunday, Minister Baskota shared that new rules would be introduced to ensure journalists’ rights and welfare.
He claimed that that the Media Council was not the final decision-making body and that several good provisions were incorporated into it.
Communication Minister added that the Media Council was not a quasi-judicial body and its decision could be challenged at high courts. He added that the government wasn’t planning to control the media.
He argued that many publishers and owners of media houses were dreading the new bill because they were not paying their employees a minimum wage determined by the government but dodge taxes.
Sher Bahadur Deuba, president of the opposition Nepali Congress, has termed the Media Council Bill a coup against press freedom. At a press conference organised by the party office in Sanepa on Sunday, Deuba told reporters that the bill was against the spirit of the constitution.
Similarly, Bibeksheel Sajha Party has also asked the government to take back the controversial decision.