Samriddhi Foundation, on 20th of December, 2019, Friday organized a consultative meeting on ‘Review of Media Council Bill’. The discussion was based on a policy brief that focused on identifying provisions in the bill that may jeopardize the autonomy of the new Media Council and possible solutions.
The freedom of expression is foundational for building a free society. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 thus has recognized the freedom of opinion and expression as a fundamental right of its citizens. One cannot imagine a free exchange of opinion and information among citizens in the absence of a free media. The realization the freedom of expression is only possible when a free and independent media exists. Recognizing the same the Preamble of the Constitution guarantees full freedom of the press.
While the Constitution is embellished with the freedom of opinion and expression, and the freedom of the press, the jewels of our democracy, it is unfortunate that the current government has proposed a bill in the federal parliament that puts freedom of the press in great danger. Bill Related to the Amendment and Integration of Laws Related to Nepal Media Council, which will replace the existing Press Council Act 1992 is being debated at the National Assembly currently.
The Bill envisions a new Media Council with an objective to develop and promote healthy, independent, respectable and responsible journalism while maintaining a professional conduct. However, there are several provisions in the Bill that will put the self-regulatory nature of the Council at risk.
Thus, the policy brief highlighted the obligatory compliance of Journalist’s Code of Conduct, the constitution of the Council, vague provisions for the dismissal of chairperson and member of the Council and the imposition of hefty fines and making changes to the Bill to ensure autonomy of the Council, so that it becomes an independent watch-dog of the Nepali media.
The consultation meeting saw a vigorous discussion among different stakeholders on the Bill. Representatives of different media houses, academicians and media researchers, experts and journalists participated in the consultation that was moderated by Mr. Ram Prasad Dahal, Secretary at Federation of Nepali Journalists. The experts provided constructive insights on the historical development of press/media councils in Nepal and the changes that can be made to the provisions in the council to ensure its independence as well as remain accountable towards media consumers.
Additionally, the participants including journalists emphasized the need to make the Council inclusive of the regional and linguistic diversity of the country as well as ensure representation of women. They also criticized the high number of government appointments to the Council. They suggested that the Act create space for the members of the public, media investors, academia in the Council while limiting the representation of the journalists to less than half of the total members.
Similarly, the experts also argued for the removal of the clauses related to the imposition of legal penalties on journalists for the content they publish in contravention of the Journalists’ Code of Conduct. They feared that such provisions may lead journalists towards self-censorship. Thus, the experts were all in consensus on ensuring voluntary compliance of the Code of Conduct.
Furthermore, the experts recommended making changes to the funding mechanism of the Council. They argued that the funding source of the Council can affect the workings of the Council. Thus, it was recommended that the clause allowing the Council to receive funds from individuals to be amended.
The consultation meetings yielded several insightful feedbacks for Samriddhi Foundation’s policy brief. The event concluded with a cautionary note that all stakeholders, including media, academia, and civil society need to remain vigilant of new developments of the Bill.