Bill poses ‘danger of economic blockade on media’

Published On: February 6, 2019 08:20 AM NPT By: Republica  | @RepublicaNepal

KATHMANDU, Feb 6: A draft bill on Management of Advertisement Regulation should be revised to remove provisions that threaten freedom of expression, stakeholders have said and raised concern over the proposed legislation that many believe is aimed against media critical of the government.

The draft bill, which is awaiting approval by the upper house of parliament, makes a whole gamut of advertisement content a criminal offense that can result in a prison sentence.

Under the proposed law, media could incur up to five years in prison and up to Rs 500,000 in fines for publishing advertisement that promotes gambling, obscenity or any content harming the country’s sovereignty, geographical integrity, relations between the center and the provinces, peace, good governance, international relations, the national flag and national insignia, and  national heroes, among other things. 

The bill also seeks to criminalize advertisements having an adverse impact on public decency, defaming the integrity of labor, encouraging discrimination based on gender and caste and discriminating against groups on the basis of caste, creed, religion or socio-economic status. It also criminalizes the use of trademarks, patents, designs and other intellectual property without consent, and also  content belittling or discouraging the use of homegrown products. Media could face punishment for promoting content affecting healthy competition, for spreading lies or rumors and instigating public sentiment through advertising. 

The draft bill doesn’t clearly explain what constitutes these offences. 

The proposed legislation has stoked concern among advertisers, journalists and publishers that it could be used to muzzle the press.

“There is a danger of economic blockade on media critical of the government. The proposed legislation, like the Electronic Transactions Act, could easily be misused to target editors and publisher,” said Taranath Dahal, former president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ).

Dahal said the government should think of more constructive ways if it wants to promote decency in advertising.

“There are other ways to regulate anomalies in the advertising industry without criminalizing advertising content,” Dahal said.

Experts claim that the legislation will force advertising agencies to choose self-censorship, ultimately leaving the sector devoid of creativity, although the umbrella association of advertising agencies has not yet clarified its position on the matter.

The government has long stood in defense of such a bill, arguing that it was needed to clear anomalies in the sector.

In a recent interview with Frontline, a weekly live talk-show aired by Nagarik Network, Gokul Baskota, the government’s information minister and spokesman, had claimed that the new advertisement-related legislation would encompass a whole range of issues related to digital and print media and address anomalies prevalent in the sector. He had cited a need for laws for ‘a controlled media’ in order to prevent anomalies brought about by the influx of media, especially online media.

It’s too early to say whether the bill will undergo any changes before getting through the bicameral legislature. But the fact that it’s being considered comes as no surprise. The government has already made it hard for media to access information.

Since the leftist government came to power last year, more than two dozen journalists have become targets of state-sponsored crackdowns for publishing critical news. Most of the journalists were targeted under the Electronic Transactions Act, something that was never meant to be used against journalists.

Dharmendra Jha, former FNJ President, said the communist party government was setting a wrong precedent in becoming unnecessarily hostile to media.

“The government should let the media do its job instead of prosecuting journalists for doing theirs,” Jha told Republica in a recent interview.

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