Provincial and local governments are coming up with their own set of laws to limit free press and expressionAdvocates of free speech fear the culture that trickled down from the federal government will ultimately lead to a state of censorship.
Provincial and local governments are following the federal government’s path of formulating regressive media laws targeted at curtailing the right to free press and freedom of expression, according to the advocates of free speech.
They have said the provincial and local governments too are guided by the mentality that the state should control the media. Putting his view at a virtual interaction on Friday, Tara Nath Dahal, executive chairman of Freedom Forum, an organisation that advocates for free speech, said the Integrated Communication Act endorsed by Province 2 is condemnable which largely gives the provincial government the authority to control the media. He said other provinces, including Lumbini, are also in the process of preparing different laws aimed at regulating the media sector.
“The culture has trickled down to the local governments,” he said. “Some of them have prepared the law, which even provides them with the authority to stop the broadcast of local FM.”
Schedule 8 of the Constitution of Nepal gives local level the authority to manage the operation of FM Radio. However, the authority to distribute the frequency lies with the federal government.
Putting their views at the interaction, the advocates of free speech said that in a worrying sign, all tiers of the governments have cultivated interest in curtailing information flow and freedom of expression.
Such actions, they said, will ultimately lead to the state of censorship.
Formulation of the laws to put a curb on freedom of expression and free press started before the general elections. Against international practice and norm, any perceived wrongdoings by the media or media persons have been treated as a criminal offence in the penal code (criminal code).
Despite the reservation by the media sector, journalists and civil liberty groups, no steps have been taken towards amending the restrictive laws.
“Wrongdoing by the media and media people cannot be treated as criminal offences. They should be treated as civil offences,” said Dahal. “The trend of coming up with regressive laws that began with the criminal code has continued.”
The privacy law and bills on information technology, media council, special service and public service broadcasting are some of the examples of such regressive laws, according to Dahal.
The advocates of free speech say it is necessary that the civil society remains vigilant and continuously raises voices against such laws so that the government is compelled to withdraw or revise them.
Tanka Aryal, an activist on Right to Information, said democratic values, international obligation and the spirit of constitution are being violated while drafting regressive and restrictive laws.
“Our lawmaking process lacks proper consultation. Neither the concerns of stakeholders are taken into consideration nor the lawmakers have a proper role in the deliberation,” he said. “It is also necessary to find out whether the lack of transparency is a political problem or the administrative one.”
He said as the government is making its final preparation to come up with the Mass Communication Bill, which will have overarching jurisdiction, it is necessary that civil society builds pressure for a proper law before it lands in the federal parliament.
Mahendra Shankhi, an undersecretary at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, said the dual nature of “experts” too has created the problem.
Without naming names he said that experts give certain suggestions during consultations and change their views when the provision becomes controversial.
“Therein lies the problem,” he said. “I would also like to make it clear that most decisions on every law are taken at the political level and we don’t have any role on it.”