Nepal is inching toward China. The signs are clearer than ever. In the meantime, the country’s incumbent communist government is now pushing its new media bill in the name of purifying the Nepali press. Two years into ruling the nation with a two-thirds majority, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) is hell-bent on passing the bill.
The media fraternity in Nepal is concerned that the government is ignoring the press freedoms enshrined in the country’s constitution. The communist government now sees a free Nepali media as an immediate threat to its position.
The proposed media council bill is ultimately a killer to Nepal’s press freedom and democracy. First, the bill aims to replace the existing Press Council Act and further aims to to confer additional authority and access to council members. Second, since the government would appoint the council members, it will be easier to dictate the terms of the council’s decisions and punish newsrooms as convenient. This practice is a clear manifestation of an autocratic regime and not suitable in a democratic nation. The bill has already sent ripples through the community of those involved in safeguarding Nepal’s press freedoms.
What’s at stake for newsrooms and journalists vis-à-vis the proposed media council bill? It is clear that the state is trying to wield its power over the Nepali press. If current assumptions are correct, it won’t be a surprise that Nepal is trying to follow the Chinese model of handling the media. The tactics are simple and obvious: appoint the ruling party’s council members to oversee the media and strengthen their grip subsequently. Then journalists can be punished through censorship, fines, imprisonment, and even physical torture. Over the past decades, Nepali journalists have been facing these sorts of challenges again and again. The hope that a new stable democratic government would strengthen press freedom in Nepal is fading away drastically.
A charismatic figure, Prime Minister K.P. Oli is undoubtedly the key figure in pushing for this bill. He won the elections by harping on a bandwagon of nationalism and populism. The aftershocks can be felt now. His party’s Minister of Communications and Information Technology Gokul Baskota has reiterated that the government won’t back down. The stakes are high for journalists; 21 editors have already issued a joint press statement urging the government to withdraw the bill.
To justify the bill, the government is arguing that it is necessary to deal with fake news and improve the media environment in the country. But what concerns Nepali journalists is that the bill ensures harsh monetary punishments if they are found guilty of violations under the proposed media bill’s standards. And the fine apply to editors and owners too.
Some of the laws mentioned in the proposed media council bill are as follows:
- Anyone can file a complaint (in the form of a written or online complaint) against journalists, editors, and news outlets at the media council if they feel violated by their news.
- Journalists will be punished if they violate the media council’s regulations. Another concerning point: Article 7 says that if a source informs the media council about the journalist’s activity they will be also be punished.
- The media council can also halt a given media publisher’s funding and any advertisements given by the government.
- The media council will also force the publisher or journalist to publish an apology or a corrected version of the article if found guilty.
- The media council will publish a list (publicly) of publishers, media owners, and journalists who defy their orders.
- The media council will terminate the press pass of accused journalists and editors temporarily or permanently.
- The media council will publish their decisions on newspapers and newspapers that are given specific categorizations will either see a decrease in their status or termination.
- The media council will play the role of a counselor and try to reconcile them with those who would file a complaint against them; they will also give a chance to media to justify their actions.
With the incumbent government’s inclination toward China, it wasn’t a surprise that the new media bill emerged. In a time when the world is seeing a rise in populist and authoritarian regimes, Nepal’s hard-won democracy is no exception. This Nepal, for which Oli fought himself, is now under threat. As he ages, it is surprising to see that his decisions are often fraught with populist tendencies. In short, he and his councils do not think well of democratic values or institutions.
Nepal’s fourth estate is under severe threat and pressure from its own government. If the government succeeds in passing this bill by using its two-thirds majority, then the foundations for democracy will be destroyed, and democracy will die in Nepal. If the government is concerned about fake news and clickbait journalism then it can create a space for media to rectify their mistakes. Alas, this is not the direction in which matters are heading.
Nepal’s Communist Party denies that it wants to control the media or curtail press freedom. The new proposed media bill says otherwise. Dark times wait for Nepali media if it is passed.