Press freedom cannot be curtailed in the name of regulationFreedom of the press is essential to any democracy and any laws that might be used to circumscribe that freedom should be scrutinised.
Recently, officials from Province 2 have drafted an ‘Integrated Communication Bill-2075’ that criminalises ‘offenses of the media’. The vaguely-worded bill includes provisions that would allow the provincial government to order a ban on news ‘related to a subject, incident or place for a specific period of time’. A provision in the Bill also stipulates that ‘banned articles’ cannot be translated or quoted in educational curricula. And only further reflecting the values of an authoritarian regime, the bill also proposes that the government runs its own radio, television, and newspapers.
This incursion against media and free expression extends far beyond Province 2. There are countless examples: Freedom Forum recently flagged Province 3 for provisions in its ‘Provincial Broadcasting Bill’ that overtly digressed from constitutional and international standards and Province 3’s ‘Mass Communication Policy’ has also been severely criticised for its role in stifling free speech in digital platforms. The list goes on.
While these regressive moves, on one hand, are clear indications that provincial governments are slowly gaining the agency to enact change through the federal structure, it also shows how these bestowed powers can be misused. The federal structure cannot be appropriated by provincial governments to arbitrarily pass laws that go against constitutional values such as principles of press freedom and freedom of expression.
What’s more, some of these draconian provincial actions are directly breaking existing federal laws related to the media. For example, Province 2’s provision of establishing an authoritative ‘Media Council’ is against the National Mass Communication Policy-2073. One of its provisions also intends to restrict journalists having press passes issued by the federal government and implementing its own system of issuing press accreditation. The fact that no governmental body has intervened to point out this seemingly overt breach of the law and arbitrary crackdown on curtailing press freedom is worrisome at best.
But, on the other hand, the lack of proactiveness to correct this willful high handedness against press freedom is unsurprising. Last year, the federal government took various legislative measures that considerably shrunk the environment for free and safe journalism. For example, the new Criminal Code, which came into effect in August 2018, included a number of articles that many human rights agencies claim will severely hinder the ability of journalists to engage in free and fair reporting.
Alarmingly, many of these actions, by both the federal and provincial governments, have justified their arbitrary bills and provisions by citing the need to ‘regulate the media’ in order to protect public interest. The intention to ‘regulate the media’ cannot be employed as a tool to restrict media freedom. Freedom of the press is essential to any democracy and any laws that might be used to circumscribe that freedom should be scrutinised.