The Nepali media witnessed most difficult time in the past one year, 2023, especially for its financial sustainability. The plummet in advertisement market, shift of advertisements to digital platform and Apps, indifference of government and parliament to law and policy reforms, huge retrenchment at media houses, continuous intimidation to journalists, muddled management of social media/networks, and spread of mis- and disinformation polluting information ecosystem featured significantly, according to Freedom Forum annual media report.
The report underscored the need for lifting Nepali media out of crisis with favorable legal/policy environment and financial support so that press freedoms would be survived, protected and promoted. However, as compared to the previous year, FF recorded slight decrease in incidents of press freedom violations- total 52 incidents which directly affected 59 media persons. Among which them, 8% are female and 92% male. In the previous year (2022), the number of press freedom violation stood 45. Intimidation via cyberspace surged last year. The report has furnished significant recommendation to restore Nepali media and free press. Nepali media houses must respect labor rights and professional sustainability of the working journalists. It has stated as a worrying trend to have closure of media houses and journalists quitting profession. Boosting advertisement industry for mainstream media is essential, it underlines.
In this background, we are welcoming new year, 2024. As the financial crisis was to 2023, law and policy watershed is to 2024. Although the last year went without any law from the parliament, this year is due to see significant bills related to media and mass communications. Many laws are old enough to regulate media. Some are pending for long. On the other hand, the disruptive impact of digital technology is equally worth mulling which warrant new laws to effectively negotiate the new setting. It is an important moment in deed to keep close watch whether the laws to be brought this year would be favorable to entire media landscape which guarantees freedom of expression and created atmosphere for safe cyberspace for exercise of digital freedoms unobstructed. Currently, Nepal has the winter session, also called the bill session. A slew of bills related to media and mass communications are being drafted. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology is learnt to have forwarded drafts of various bills including concept paper on artificial intelligence (AI).
It is therefore a critical juncture to work for law and policy reform which would impact coming decades. Effective advocacy and debates are imperative to engage with stakeholders including lawmakers and policymakers so that the bills would incorporate the provisions that adhere to national legislation, international human rights instruments and best practices. Once timely and meaningful engagement are ensured, it would help better shape future of media landscape and democracy. However, the trends so far are discouraging and problematic, for they fail to adequately address the FoE. Whether it is with hasty generalization of digital threats or insufficient knowledge on the new dimension of mass communication dominated by digital technology, the lawmakers and policy makers seem antagonistic to FoE on cyberspace, thereby criminalizing media. Media laws must not be criminal but civil laws.
The line ministry released drafts of the National Mass Communication Bill and Media Council Bill on December 21 seeking inputs from the public. They have courted controversy. Similarly, Media Council Bill, National Mass Communications Bill, Information Technology Bill, and Social Media Regulation and Management Bill on November 30 are other important areas in need of serious discussion with multi-stakeholders. The Council of Ministers introduced Directive on Operation of Social Networking Sites-2023 in November which also drew flak for its provision of regulating social media, thereby intending to suppress FoE. Similarly, National Cyber Security Policy 2080 BS was also endorsed in August, 2023 which could not fully incorporate recommendations from the concerned stakeholders. As this year, 2024, is poised to sort out these bills, an informed and inclusive debate is essential. As always, Freedom Forum is devoted to continue its advocacy and study for media reform that would help shape future of FoE-friendly Nepali media and foster democratic spheres.
At province levels as well, the bills on media regulation are under discussion. The Koshi province government has registered the Mass Communication Bill in the province assembly, while the Mass Communications Management Bill is under discussion at the Gandaki provincial assembly’s legislative committee. If freedom of expression and press freedom elude these laws and policies at federal and provincial levels, the foundation of democracy would be weakened. So, it is a decisive time to act for robust democracy with protection and promotion of freedom of expression.