Nepal on Friday proposed a new media bill aimed at imposing a hefty fine of up to Rs 1 million on media outlets found guilty of damaging anyone's reputation, raising alarm among journalists who say the government seeks to punish the press in the name of regulation. Registered on Thursday, the new Media Council bill aims to replace the existing Press Council Act and will have more authority to issue hefty fines and give the government more say in the hiring and firing of the council members.
Dilip Thapa Magar, the vice president of Federation of Nepali Journalists, said increasing the government's role in council member recommendation process could jeopardise the free press. "Newsroom critical of the government might end up in trouble more frequently if political appointees increase in the new council being envisioned with greater authority to take stern actions," said Magar.
Earlier, the council could ask for clarification, apology, blacklist certain press organisations, direct to the court for compensation, but now the bill aims to give the council authority to issue monetary punishment ranging from Rs 25,000 and up to one million.
The provisions in the proposed bill will also give the council greater power to write to the concerned authority to take action against media organisations if they violate press ethics as defined by the government.
It also proposes punishment for violating the code of conduct which includes suspension of press pass of media persons and downgrading of the classification of print media outlets. A senior member of Press Council Nepal said the government brought the bill without consulting stakeholders.
The bill's proposal to impose heavy fine on mediapersons for violating laws is wrong, as it could lead to closure of media outlets, particularly those that were not financially sound, said the press council staff.
Treasurer of the Federation of Nepali Journalists Rajesh Mishra said the bill's provisions were aimed at punishing the press in the name of regulation which the journalists' umbrella body would never accept. "This bill intends to form a government-controlled Nepal Media Council which will be dangerous for the press freedom," he said.
Mishra said the stakeholders in democratic countries were trying to promote self-regulation in the media sector and the same should be the norm in Nepal. He said the bill's provisions were in contravention of national and international norms and also the Constitution of Nepal.
Professor of Journalism at Tribhuvan University P Kharel said the bill's proposal to impose heavy fine on media professionals could curtail press freedom.
The drafting of the bill started last year and had generated controversy when the government quietly moved the bill to the parliament on Wednesday, bypassing a critical consultation phase with stakeholders and the public. The consultation phase, which has been in practice for a long time, is considered a critical element of the democratic exercise of lawmaking.