Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota has defended the media bill saying the detractors are opposing it holding just a straw of the bill.
The bill the government registered in the parliament on May 9 proposes a fine of up to Rs 1 million on journalists violating the code of conduct. “They have made a mountain out of a molehill by clutching at a straw of the bill,” Baskota said in an interview with Setopati.
He stressed that the Nepali media needs to be regulated saying the media cannot have its own way. “It is not that what Nepali press says is carved in stone,” he opined.
He, however, hinted that the government is ready to make some changes saying creative criticisms are always welcome. “Despite our efforts to bring a good bill, if it in any way deviates from the global norms of democracy and press freedom, and the constitutional provisions about press freedom, we welcome creative suggestions, debate and discussion,” he stated.
He assured that the bill has not been brought to curtail press freedom. “This government does not believe that democracy can survive when press freedom is violated,” he pointed.
He pointed that the government has already done its work and it is up to the sovereign parliament to pass it with or without amendments.
The bill has been widely condemned with the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) already starting protests demanding its withdrawal while President of the main opposition party Nepali Congress (NC) Sher Bahadur Deuba has called it a coup on journalists and press freedom.
The bill that will turn the current Press Council Nepal into Media Council has proposed a fine of Rs 25,000 to Rs 1 million on the media, its publisher, editor and journalist if they seem to have hurt somebody’s dignity and prestige.
The current Press Council Act does not have a provision of fine. It only requires publication of the aggrieved party’s version, and recommendation to the government to partially or completely stop government’s facilities and benefits for a certain period for repeated violation.
The Media Council can also order compensation for the aggrieved person or institution on top of the fine. “The council can also get the aggrieved persons or institutions compensated if they suffer any loss due to the publication or broadcast of the material violating the code of conduct issued by the council,” the bill states.
It has also paved the way for punishment against the journalists as per other laws for violation of code of conduct.
The council will have to write to the bodies concerned for such legal action. It also states that punishment for violation of code of conduct will not save the journalists from punishment as per other laws for the same violation.
The bill allows the council to receive assistance from foreign individuals and institutions without government permission, even as the government has registered an amendment bill requiring even the National Human Rights Commission to take permission from the Finance Ministry for accepting foreign assistance.
Qualification for chairman of such a powerful council, however, has been limited to bachelor’s degree. Only a retired Supreme Court (SC) justice or senior advocate or a journalist who has made significant contribution through journalism can chair the current Press Council.
The chairman must have a 10-year journalism experience but members need a 15-year experience.
The bill has tried to establish the Media Council as a government body instead of the quasi-judicial the Press Council is now, and the role of Ministry of Communication and Information Technology has been expanded.
Members are nominated by the speaker of House of Representatives (HoR) and National Assembly chairman as per the current Press Council Act but the government will appoint the chairman, and the ministry members as per the bill.
Six members of the nine-strong Council will be appointed by the ministry, with a first-class officer nominated by the ministry, and the Federation of Nepali Journalists chairman being the other members.
The bill also allows the government to sack the chairman and members for unsatisfactory performance whenever it wishes.
The Supreme Court (SC) has refused to register a writ petition brought against appointment of the then district judge Lekh Nath Dhakal to the High Court.