KATHMANDU, May 13: As the government drafts bills, one after another, curtailing press freedom, experts have advised the media watchdog organizations to challenge the bills in court.
Arguing that media watchdog organizations including the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ) have no other option but to challenge controversial laws at the Supreme Court, experts said some provisions of the controversial bills contradict the preamble of the constitution and fundamental rights enshrined in the statute.
“When all other options don’t work, legal remedy is the last resort to safeguard the hard-earned press freedom. So, remain prepared to challenge the anti-press laws,” declared Raksha Basyal, vice-president of Nepal Bar Association (NBA) adding, “NBA is ready to support FNJ and other organizations.”
FNJ, the umbrella organization of Nepali journalists, has started protests against some of the provisions included in the bills formulated by the government to change media laws.
National as well as international media watchdog organizations including the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) have expressed their serious concerns over some of the provisions in the Bill to Amend and Integrate Media Council Act saying that those provisions have wide-ranging implications for the media.
Under the proposed provisions, media outlets and journalists can be fined up to Rs 1 million for publishing any content in violation of the media code of ethics.
Under Section 18 of the Bill to Amend and Integrate Media Council Act, media outlets, publishers, editors and/or journalists can be fined up to Rs 1 million for publishing content found to be tarnishing the dignity or reputation of any individual.
Another media law, Bill on Mass Communications, has proposed Rs 5 million to Rs 10 million in penalties or 10 to 15 years in jail or both for journalists publishing or broadcasting any content undermining national sovereignty, territorial integrity or nationality. The bill has also proposed confiscation of media equipment if the media outlets and journalists are found publishing offensive content.
Worried over proposed legal measures aimed at stifling the media, FNJ had invited legal experts, rights defenders, civil society and editors of daily newspapers for their suggestions on how to defend the constitutionally guaranteed peoples’ right to freedom of expression.
At the interaction, representatives said the proposed media laws contradict the preamble of the constitution and several provisions on fundamental rights guaranteed by the constitution.
Mohna Ansari, member of National Human Rights Commission, said hefty fines on journalists and the provision of confiscation of media equipment for publishing critical news were the most objectionable things. “How can a reporter or a columnist who often are not paid even minimum wages pay fines worth millions of rupees,” said Commissioner Ansari adding, “And the provision of confiscating media equipment contradicts the constitutional provisions including the very preamble.”
The 2015 constitution states, “Promoting … democratic norms and values including the people’s competitive multiparty democratic system of governance, civil liberties, fundamental rights, human rights, adult franchise, periodic elections, full freedom of the press, and independent, impartial and competent judiciary and concept of the rule of law, and build a prosperous nation.”
The bills are against the spirit of the constitution and intend to silence critical voices, said the legal experts participating in the interaction. They accused the government of weakening autonomous constitutional bodies and curtailing media freedom after the media exposed corruption, government’s non-performance and land scams involving politicians.
“Discontent over media outlets or news content?” exclaimed Ansari, adding, “This is a crucial question. Democracy can’t survive when press freedom is curtailed and autonomous bodies with long legacies of fighting for democratic values are targeted.”
Former FNJ President Taranath Dahal said categorizing the social media as other media is the most objectionable thing in the Bill to Amend and Integrate the Media Council Act. Dahal warned that even innocent social media users could be sent to jail if the bill is endorsed in its current form.