When it comes to media content, leave it to viewers’ discretion, experts sayCable operators' move of banning Indian news channels after insulting video about Oli has raised a question if the state should encourage them to control the content.
In response to “insulting” and “baseless” reports about Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, Nepal’s cable TV operators on Thursday decided to ban Indian news channels. In the immediate aftermath, the decision garnered quite some support, but experts now are questioning the move.
“Access to media is the fundamental right of the people and globally, it is considered fundamental human rights,” said Taranath Dahal, executive chairman of Freedom Forum, a civil liberty group that advocates free speech. “The content suppliers' move of banning the channels is wrong.”
Zee News, an Indian news channel, had aired a ‘news report’ about Oli, making sensational claims about the prime minister’s relationship with Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi. The ‘report’ presented no real evidence but made baseless allegations for over 15 minutes.
Amid public outcry, most of the Indian news channels went off air Thursday night. Ruling party leaders, Oli’s advisers, and the Federation of Nepali Journalists had all expressed concern and condemned the report.
“But the decision to ban the news channels raises an important question as to who is the media content regulator in Nepal,” Dahal told the Post. “Non-state actors regulating the content of the media is a very serious matter. Even the state cannot control the content haphazardly in a democratic society. If any such decision has to be taken, the state agencies should make a move on the basis of a proper legal provision.”
The government in fact is legally equipped to ban any television channels that it deems objectionable.
Article 9 of the National Broadcasting Rules 1995 allows the government to prohibit the broadcast of any matter that undermines the security, peace and order of Nepal; jeopardises the decency, morality of the general public and social harmony; undermines the sovereignty and integrity of Nepal; spread[s] social deformity; and undermines the reputation, honour or prestige of a person, by pointing out the name of that person.
The rules further allow the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to prohibit broadcast of “such other materials… as prescribed by the ministry from time to time.”
According to Ram Kumar Basnet, general secretary of the Federation of Cable Televisions, they decided to shut some Indian new channels “for attacking Nepal’s sovereignty” and that they won’t lift the ban “as long as Indian channels continue such activities”.
Experts said that it is not the TV signal carriers and distributors who should control and regulate the media content. What to watch and what to ignore is viewers’ discretion and it’s wrong to impose a blanket ban on channels for the mistakes made by some, according to them.
The government, however, has taken the cable operators’ move in a positive light.
Issuing a statement on Friday, the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology thanked the digital cable service providers for “spontaneously blocking such broadcasting channels”.
“The ministry believes that it will get support from the stakeholders in the future as well to implement the laws and code of conduct,” read the statement by Rishiram Tiwari, spokesperson for the ministry.
Instead of discouraging non-state actors from making such a move, the government is thanking them and it is even more dangerous, say experts.
“Controlling and regulating the media content does not fall under the jurisdiction of the TV signal carriers and distributors,” said Dahal of Freedom Forum. “State agencies must look into such matters.”
The Indian media has been hostile to Oli lately after his government’s move to publish a new political map of Nepal depicting Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh as parts of the Nepali territory. India claims the areas as its own. Some news channels have been showing “news reports” alluding to China’s hand in the Oli government’s move.
Cable TV operators, however, said the ban may not continue for long.
“The ban may last for around 10 days, but the government has asked us to consult with the authorities before lifting it,” said Sudeep Acharya, chief executive officer of DishHome. He, however, said the ban followed informal consultations with the government.
Hours before Indian news channels went off air, Yubaraj Khatiwada, the government spokesperson, had said on Thursday that the government would be seeking legal and political remedies against some Indian media.
“Government can condemn misleading and baseless reports and take the issue up with the concerned parties, but shutting the media—and controlling its content—is against the values of an open society and freedom of expression,” said Binod Bhattarai, a media educator and researcher. “Indian channels are desperate for viewers; they want to grab eyeballs.”
According to Bhattarai, content suppliers controlling the information is unacceptable.
“They cannot do moral policing,” said Bhattarai. “What to watch and what not to watch is people’s discretion and allowing the content suppliers to decide on behalf of the people is not good for a democratic society.”