Media Council Bill registered in the parliament by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology in May last year was flawed in many respects. It had the provision of Media Council slapping journalists with a fine of up to one million rupees for “publishing content against the media code of ethics.” The Council would be completely controlled by the government, allowing the ministry to appoint most of the council’s members. These two points had become the matter of public contestations. Media fraternity rose to protests and civil society drew the attention of the government to revise the restrictive contents of the Bill. In this context, Legislative Committee of the National Assembly has amended some of the contents. It has removed the provision of fining up to one million rupees to journalists for violating media code of ethics. Also, the amended Bill says that chairperson of the Council will be appointed by the government from among senior advocates or advocates having qualification to be the judge of the Supreme Court or among journalists having 15 years of experience in the newsroom. According to the revised Bill, Chairperson of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) will be an ex-officio member of the Council while a joint-secretary of the Ministry, professor or assistant professor of journalism and representatives elected by journalists and media owners from seven provinces representing print, online and broadcast media will be the members. These are welcome changes but more amendment needs to be made, for the revised Bill contains the provision which could potentially restrict freedom of expression.
Two issues stand out. First, the House panel has introduced a new provision of making it mandatory for journalists to obtain license after getting through an examination conducted by the Council. The Council will prepare the syllabus and also conduct examination for licensing. This provision is problematic for the simple reason that licensing system will discourage new aspirants and allow the state to dictate who can and cannot be a journalist. Journalists do not require license to write and disseminate the information. All they require is a passion for exploring stories and exposing the wrongdoings of both state and non-state actors. Besides, media landscape has fundamentally changed in recent years. Journalists alone are no longer the source of news and information these days. People are too. No wonder, the concept of citizen journalism is gaining momentum across the world.
The parliamentary committee has recommended that the Council should be given a reconciliatory role. The revised Bill states that “if any media content, against the media code of ethics issued by the council, is found to be affecting the dignity and social standing of any individual, the council may mediate for reconciliation between the complainant and the media organization concerned.” This is not necessary. Media outlets themselves are responsible for the mistakes they make and they can issue clarification and apologies in such cases. And if the concerned party is not satisfied with the clarification issued by the media outlet, s/he can always go to the court. Thus, as the parliament further deliberates on this Bill, lawmakers should amend these aspects as well. Nepali media has served as an agent of change and as a facilitator in the country’s democratic process. Media should be free.