Deputy parliamentary party leader of the ruling CPN Subas Chandra Nembang has asked journalists close to the party to submit points for amendment of the media bill.
The party had organized a discussion at its central office on Sunday following widespread criticism of the government and CPN due to the bill.
Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota, and lawmakers Yogesh Bhattarai and Pampha Bhushal were also present during the discussion with journalists close to the party.
The journalists criticized the bill and advised its withdrawal. Minister Baskota and journalists had a few exchanges during the discussion.
Baskota argued that the bill was brought to protect freedom of citizens as the media has become rogue. “I don’t know that the government protects citizens’ rights,” Editor-in-Chief of Drishti weekly hit back at Baskota. “There should be press freedom as the government hijacks the rights of citizens.”
Baskota claimed the bill was brought as the media has become irresponsible and anarchic. “Why do you do as you wish? Is there no public responsibility?” Baskota asked. “Are all the persons criminals? Why has the media become irresponsible?”
Journalists opposed the bill saying it made the media council a government body and suggested that the provision of fine should not be kept.
Former chairman of Press Chautari Saindra Rai hit back at Baskota when he insisted that the bill will not be withdrawn. “This is not an office of your ministry. Leaders who are senior to you are present here. Subas Nembang, Yogesh Bhattarai and Pampha Bhusal are here. You should start to listen to others,” Rai advised Baskota.
Jousnalists Gagan Bista, Rajendra Aryal and Bishnu Sapkota also put their opinions during the discussion.
Nembang asked the journalists to hand over the points to be amended in the bill to him at the end of discussion.
“I told to Subas Nembang–Does the Nepal Bar Council give punishment to offending lawyers? If not why should the journalists be fined and punished?” Shrestha told Setopati. “He became positive after that.”
Pointing that he has been members of the Press Council Nepal twice in the past, Shrestha said the issue will become international if the concept of self-regulation of press is not accepted. “The free press should not be strangulated through the council. Council should regulate, not punish,” he stressed.
Nembang also opined that laws should not be made contradicting with the Constitution. “Laws should not be made violating the preamble of Constitution. The Supreme Court can interpret the preamble and revoke the laws otherwise,” he pointed. “There will be problems from other bodies if the law contravenes complete press freedom.”
Nembang asked the journalists to list the points that can imperil the media. “Do list the points that imperil the media, and hand over what amendments need to be made. We are ready to amend it,” he assured.
He pointed that the parliament will now focus on the upcoming budget and the media bill will move forward only after that.
“I am confident that the autocratic provision of fine will be removed after listening to Nembang,” Shrestha told Setopati.
The party had only invited a handful of journalists close to the party for discussion. Former chairman of Press Chautari Ganesh Basnet, former general secretary Rajesh Rai, treasurer Indra Acharya, and deputy general secretary Ram Kumal Alan, however, did not attend the discussion.
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.