KATHMANDU, May 10: The government has pushed new legislation with harsher provisions to further tighten control on media, including a provision of up to Rs 1 million penalty for publishing content in violation of the media code of ethics.
The Bill to Amend and Integrate Media Council Act registered by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology at the House of Representative secretariat on Thursday also proposes a structure for keeping the media council under the government's purview.
Section 18 of the bill states that the council may impose a fine of Rs 25,000 to 1 million aganst a media house, publisher, editor or journalist if media content is found tarnishing the dignity or reputation of any individual.
Similarly, the council may make the media house concerned provide compensation to a victim if any content published by it violates the code of ethics, causing damage to any individual or institution.
Existing media law doesn't allow the media watchdog body, Press Council Nepal (PCN), to slap monetary penalties against media or journalists for violating the code of ethics.
The PCN may order a media house to publish the rebuttal of the victim and could recommend to the government to bar the media house from government subsidy for a certain period if it is found to be in breach of the media code of ethics repeatedly.
The media council bill has been drafted at a time when the media fraternity and civil society fear that the government is trying to curtail freedom of expression and the press through an Information Technology and Advertisement Bill. Both bills are under discussion at parliament.
Media freedom activists fear that the authorities may use such laws to keep media under the threat of government reprisals for critical reporting.
According to the bill, any individual can file a complaint against media and journalists at the council, accusing them of violating the code even if he/she is not personally affected by the media content.
Also, the proposed media council can take action against media and journalists on charges of violation of the code of ethics if the authorities find any content to be in violation of the code in any fashion even without any complaint being filed.
The council may mediate reconciliation, ask media, a publisher, editor or journalist for an apology, recommend restrictions on government subsidy or advertisements for a certain period and even suspend the press credentials of journalist for a certain period and also deprive print media of council classification for violation of the code, depending on the gravity of the case.
The Media Council Bill further explains that the council should forward the case to the concerned authority for legal action if any case concerning media ethics also constitutes an offence under any existing law. A provision in the bill states that media, publishers, editors or journalists can challenge the decision of the media council at the high court within 35 days of a verdict.
The Media Council will draft and implement a media code of ethics and all media houses also must adopt an internal code of ethics in line with the council's, code, reads the bill.
Media experts have also expressed concern over the independence of the council, given the government's upper hand in appointments of the head and members of the council.
According to the bill, the government will appoint the chairperson of the council and the concerned ministry will appoint six other members, including two women. Chairperson of the Federation of Nepali Journalists and a joint-secretary at the ministry will be ex-officio members of the council.
“The appointment procedure for the chief and members at the council doesn't meet the requirements of an independent self-governing body ,” said constitutional expert Bipin Adhikari.
He added that it also matters whether the government has drafted the new law as demanded by the media fraternity or as per the government's plan.
After endorsement of the proposed bill, the existing PCN will be converted in to the media council and existing office bearers will be terminated. The bill has provisioned that any individual holding a bachelor's degree in any field and having experience of journalism for 10 years will be eligible to become chairperson of the council.
Media expert Kashi Raj Dahal said that the qualification criteria for the chairperson are very low for a quasi-judicial body. “It should have been at least 20 years of experience in media and knowledge of media and law ,” he said . The new bill has also proposed barring the council from receiving any foreign grants directly.