This controversial bill would replace the existing Press Council with a new media regulator, the Media Council, which would supposedly be able to “deal with fake news and improve the media environment” but would in practice pose extreme grave threats to journalistic freedom in Nepal.
The proposed Media Council would be able to fine reporters and editors up to 1 million rupees (8,000 euros) for violating its “code of conduct” and sentence them to up to 15 years in prison in the event of non-payment.
Article 10 of the bill eliminates the principle of press independence outright by saying that “the president and members of the Media Council will be directly appointed by the government,” which can “remove the president and members at any time.” This amounts to saying the Media Council will be nothing more than a governmental censorship and propaganda office.
Respect the constitution
The proposed measures have been strongly condemned not only by journalists but also within the ruling Nepal Communist Party, whose coalition controls two thirds of the parliament. Several of its leading members, including former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal, have openly called on the government to amend the bill.
“The executive must submit a new bill stripped of the grave violations of journalistic freedom and independence that it currently contains, which are completely unconstitutional," said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“It is legitimate to seek a mechanism for regulating the media domain, but we urge Nepal’s legislators to adhere to a series of fundamental principles that would allow them to respect the ‘complete press freedom’ proclaimed in the 2015 constitution’s preamble.”
RSF’s recommendations for the Media Council Bill
- It falls to journalists alone, without state interference, to define the rules of journalistic ethics and to ensure that they are respected. The Nepalese media can be guided by internationally recognized journalistic codes of conduct that include the Declaration of Rights and Obligations of Journalists, known as the Munich Charter.
- It falls to Nepal’s journalists themselves to take any initiative to regulate journalism in Nepal by defining rules of professional conduct and setting up a body tasked with ensuring that they are respected.
- The Nepalese authorities can nonetheless stimulate and encourage journalists to create a Media Council. The Media Council Bill could, for example, require media organizations to negotiate a code of conduct with the representatives of their journalists and to negotiate the creation of an ethics council within each media organization to monitor respect for this code of conduct. But the state must not intervene in defining these codes or ensuring that they are respected.
- If also falls to Nepal’s journalists and media themselves to determine the composition of any Media Council, which should be tripartite: journalists, media publishers and the public should all have elected representatives. If the state has representatives on the Media Council, they should only be observers.
- The Media Council must not usurp any of the judiciary’s prerogatives to impose sanctions, but should rather issue opinions on cases or situations that have been referred to it, possibly by the public. Its purpose is educational rather than punitive.
- The Media Council’s statutes must guarantee its independence of both the state and the media.
- The Media Council’s competence must cover all forms of media: print, online and broadcast.
Nepal is ranked 106th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2019 World Press Freedom Index.