It’s becoming official: The government of K P Sharma Oli is turning hostile toward press. One after other press-related bill being registered or under deliberation in the parliament gives this impression. More recently, the government has pushed new legislation with harsher provisions to further tighten control on media, including a provision of up to Rs one million penalty for publishing content that violates 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 Representatives secretariat on Thursday proposes a structure for keeping the media council under the government’s purview. Section 18 of the bill mentions that Press Council Nepal (PCN) may impose a fine of Rs 25,000 to one million against a media house, publisher, editor or journalist if media content is found tarnishing the dignity or reputation of any individual. Besides, there also is a provision for making the media house concerned provide compensation to the victim if any content published by the media is found to violate the code of ethics, causing damage to any individual or institution. The bill proposes to allow the proposed Media Council to slap monetary penalties against media or journalists.
This is deeply troubling because the bill gives the government an absolute power to take action against certain media house or media person even on illegitimate grounds. For example, officials at the proposed Media Council will be appointed by the government itself. When these officials monitor Nepali press it means the government itself is monitoring the press. Besides, since what constitutes tarnishing dignity or reputation of individual is largely undefined, a journalist writing about corruption scam involving certain individuals could be subjected to harassment. For any one can file a complaint against such journalist and the journalist could be interrogated or even fined or punished based on the same complaint. With the fear of being prosecuted in mind, a journalist won’t be able to report and write freely about any incident. It is troubling also because this media council bill has been drafted at a time when the media fraternity and civil society have been complaining that the government is trying to curtail freedom of expression and the press through Information Technology and Advertisement Bill. There is the possibility for the government to misinterpret the provisions and even exploit the loopholes to target against certain journalists or media houses for writing critical news. Also proposed media council can take action against media and journalists on charges of violation of code of ethics if the authorities deem media contents violate the code even without any complaint being filed.
Prime Minister Oli and his cabinet colleagues have been reiterating their commitment to free press and freedom of expression in public forums. But in practice, they are coming up with one after other legal measures to control the press. Needless to say, free press is the basic fundamental of functioning democracy. Accountable and transparent government and free press complement each other. When the government itself stands visibly opposed to free press, media will surely be critical of the government. The government should review the proposed bill and remove any provisions that could impose restriction on reporting and writing. Already opposition party and civil society have accused the government of taking authoritarian route. The proposed bill adds credence to such criticism. The first precondition of a democratic society is a free press. Encroach on this space, democracy will suffer.