Government is working on Mass Media Bill with harsher provisions for media sectorThe draft bill, currently at the Law Ministry, proposes fines up to Rs 10 million and jail terms up to 15 years or both.
After the controversial Information Technology and Media Council Council Bills, the government is working on a new media-related bill—the Mass Media Bill—which has some provisions that free press campaigners say are aimed at further tightening the administration’s grip on the media sector.
The draft bill, which is at the Ministry of Law and Justice for finalisation, proposes hefty fines and jail terms or both for journalists and media houses.
Clause 59 (1) of the bill, a copy of which has been obtained by the Post, says journalists will be liable to pay a fine up to Rs 10 million and a maximum of 15 years of a jail term or both if they are found to be publishing or broadcasting any content on the national or international media against sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity. Clause 59 (3) of the bill has a provision of a maximum Rs 1.5 million fine or a jail term up to 10 years, if journalists are found guilty of undermining harmonious relationship between various castes, tribes and religious communities.
There are also jail terms and hundreds of thousands of rupees in fine for journalists “found guilty of sedition, defamation or contempt of court.”
Freedom of expression and free press activists say the major problem with the draft bill is that it aims to treat the “dont’s” laid down by it as criminal offences instead of civil offences.
“And this shows the authorities’ ill-intention,” Taranath Dahal, chief executive at Freedom Forum, a civil liberties organisation, told the Post.
The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology had drafted the bill as per the July 16 Cabinet approval for the same. The ministry had forwarded the bill to the Law Ministry after the Finance Ministry’s green signal. The government was planning to table the bill in the federal parliament at the ongoing budget session.
However, officials said the bill is unlikely to make it to Parliament anytime soon given the possibility of the government landing in controversy.
The KP Sharma Oli administration over the months has gathered criticism for at least half a dozen controversial bills that aimed to curtail freedom of expression, free press and civil liberties.
While the government was forced to withdraw the Guthi Bill after massive protests, it has put the Media Council Bill on hold for the time being after journalists and free press campaigners objected to its provisions. The Media Council Bill envisions a new press council with sweeping powers to the self-regulatory body overseeing the press. Information rights activists and journalists have criticised the bill, saying that the new council could increase direct attacks on the press.
The new Mass Media Bill also provisions actions against media houses.
The government, the bill says, can impose a ban on the import of communication or raw materials needed by the media houses and stop government facilities and subsidies if they defy the provisions in the bill. The government can stop its advertisement and bar media house owners from being a part of government delegations abroad, says the draft bill.
Law Ministry officials say they have been instructed by the Information Ministry not to finalise the Mass Media Bill until further notice, saying some more consultations were needed. Media freedom campaigners, however, say the government has not taken any steps yet as far as consultation is concerned.
“I don’t think the incumbent government believes in consultation,” said Dahal, the Freedom Forum chief.
The earlier controversial bills—Media Council Bill, the IT Bill and the Guthi Bill—too were quietly moved to Parliament without holding consultations with the concerned agencies and individuals.
Once finalised, the Mass Media Bill will be sent to the Information Ministry, which will then present it to the Cabinet. Following the Cabinet’s approval, it will be registered in the federal parliament.
Law Ministry officials say they have no option but to finalise the bill as they have been directed by their seniors to do.
“We can do nothing even if we feel there are some restrictive provisions in the draft,” said a Law Ministry official seeking anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the media. “It’s the journalists or the media houses who need to raise issues if they find any of the provisions problematic.”
The draft bill, once endorsed by Parliament, will replace the Press and Publication Act, Working Journalists Act and the National Broadcasting Act, which jointly govern the media sector—press, radio and television.
“Some provisions in the draft bill are clearly aimed at controlling media houses and journalists. This is unacceptable if it goes to Parliament without revision,” Ramesh Bista, general secretary of the Federation of Nepali Journalists, the umbrella organisation of journalists, told the Post. Bista said the federation has submitted its recommendations to be incorporated into the bill but has not received any feedback from the government yet.
“Though leaders of the ruling party had assured proper consultation before finalising any media-related laws,” said Bista, “we haven’t been called so far.”