By Dr. S. Chandrasekharan
The Oli Government has just introduced a new Media Council Bill replacing the old Press Council Act.
There has been all round criticism from every quarter that the Oli Government is trying to muzzle the Press. The Federation of Nepal Journalists is leading the charge and is accusing the Government of trying to control the media.
There were accusations that the Government had bypassed the consultative phase that had been in practice and that the bill had been drafted in secrecy and sent to the Parliament directly. The last two points are baseless as the bill will be discussed thread bare in the Parliament. One can understand the questioning of the substantive provisions of the bill but not on procedural issues.
What the bill aims to do is to strengthen the rights of the victims- i.e. the individuals affected by such publications and holds not only the journalists who wrote but also, the Editor and the Publishers. There is a provision for the Council to take ‘suo motu’ action that is very necessary.
The aim is to prevent scurrilous, unfounded and character assassination reports and that not only the writer, but also the editor and the publishers should be made equally accountable for violation of press ethics. There is also a provision to go to the court on appeal. The message is – even if you are from the media you are equally bound to be accountable to what you publish and pay for the consequences for irresponsible reporting and you are free to go for a judicial review.
Some of the highlights of the new bill are:
- The Bill replaces the existing Press Council Act and is more “victim oriented”.
- A complaint may be made to the Council by anyone who feels that the Press ethics have been violated and it need not be by the affected individual alone.
- The Council has been empowered to give hefty fines from Rupees twenty five thousand to one million against a media house, publisher, editor or a journalist if the media centre is found to be tarnishing the dignity or reputation of any individual. It can even order the seizure of the equipment of the media house.
- The Council can make the media to provide compensation to the victim.
- The Media Council can initiate action on its own without waiting for the Complainant to give the complaint.
- The affected party can challenge the decision of the Council in the High Court within 35 days of the verdict.
- The Government will appoint a chairperson with six other members to be appointed of whom two should be women.
- The Chairman of the Federation of Nepal Journalists and a Joint secretary of the Government will be ex officio members of the Council.
However, there is one criticism of the bill that needs to be reviewed. It looks that the Government has more say in the hiring and firing of council members. Perhaps a more objective selection and dismissal procedure can be adopted to ensure that it is not motivated by personal or political vendetta.
But certainly, the bill does not appear to be intended to restrict the powers of the press but to make them more accountable when reporting goes against the norms of press ethics and the individual affected may be too shy or cowed by such reports.