Respect the pressThe media played a vital role in Nepal’s transition to a republic.
In May 2019, bypassing the important deliberation phase with the concerned parties, the government quietly presented the Media Council Bill to Parliament. It quickly met with criticism over the proposed legislation, which aims to replace the existing Press Council Act, as some of its provisions were aimed at stifling the press. One of them mandated a fine of up to Rs 1 million against journalists for violating the 'media code of ethics'.
The problematic provisions raised fears of more sanctions on press freedom. Despite criticism, the government appeared adamant, arguing that there was a need to 'regulate the Nepali media'. Organisations representing the media and rights activists held several rounds of talks and managed to extract a promise that the bill and its provisions would be reviewed. On Monday, cross-party representatives in the Legislation Management Committee of the National Assembly agreed to remove the provisions.
Although late, the decision means some semblance of sanity. But the battle has only been half won. While the committee has agreed to not fine journalists for doing their job, it continued with another provision which makes it mandatory for new journalists to obtain a licence before they can start practicing journalism.
Ever since Oli’s ascension to power in 2018, attacking the press and muzzling dissent has been his administration's common features. From introducing the draconian IT Management Bill, which threatened to curtail freedom of speech online along with increased surveillance of personal data, to shrouding the Media Council Bill in secrecy before presenting it in Parliament, the government seemed hell-bent on clamping down on the media.
The environment for free and safe journalism considerably shrank in 2018. The Federation of Nepali Journalists reported that there have been 42 incidents of abuse against journalists since May 4, 2018. Nepal’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index did not improve either. It was ranked 106th out of 180 countries in both 2018 and 2019. Journalism is of utmost importance to democracy and human rights. For democracy to be healthy, the importance of a free press cannot be overstated. And to maintain that, journalists need not give exams to prove their competency.
The government must not impose conditions where its citizens who serve in various capacities have to choose one thing over another. Instead, it must create a conducive environment where the ruler and the ruled are on the same page. That is what makes for a thriving, participative democracy. The Media Council Bill was against democratic norms and the freedom of expression that is ensured by the Constitution of Nepal.
It is commendable that the government has corrected its actions, but it still needs to do more and get rid of the condition that forces journalists to obtain a licence. The media played a cardinal role in Nepal’s transition from a monarchy to a republic, championing the voices of the people, and clamouring for rights. The constant tussle between the authorities and the press is a sign of a healthy democracy, where praise, disagreement, criticism and satire all go hand in hand. The government must respect that.
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