Taranath Dahal
The government is learned to have drafted the bill relating to mass communication in view of the changed context. The bill is to replace Press and Publication Act 2048, National Broadcasting Act 2049 and Working Journalists Act 2051. At a time when the mass media is need of being fair, independent, transparent and professional for boosting the inclusive democracy, the draft obviously draws the attention.

The draft, however, signals multifarious problems in mass communication, thereby shrinking citizen’s right to freedom of expression. It, if passed by the parliament, is likely to make government control the media. It is good that an initiative to bring an umbrella act that could address various challenges and concerns in the media. But, the way key terms as ‘mass communication’, ‘journalists’ and ‘press representative’ draw severe attention. It points out the need for conceptual clarity on these fundamental terms.

Although the bill proposes to establish an independent national mass communication authority to regulate the license and professional criteria of media and promote archive and the self-regulation system is a positive idea, the structure of the committee for the recommendation of the formation of authority does not ensure a fair process. Once the process of appointments at authority is not fair, the authority would to be imbalanced and guided by unilateral domination. It means the authority, as the recruitment center of the government, would act as per the interest of the government, rather than the need of the entire media community and the policy debates. At such, comprehensive debate, discussion and consultations on the role and responsibilities given to the authority are imperative. Uniformity in understanding among all sides is therefore unavoidable.

The country is now a federal system. But, the rights to distribute all government advertisements assigned to the authority are very impractical and ludicrous. If any federal set up is broached by depriving rights of the province and local governments, it undoubtedly invites conflict. It is ultimately a blemish on the spirit of federalism. Another worrying matter is that employees for the authority would be provided by the government- the way the government control is deepened and autonomy of authority is blurred. When the ministry’s staffs are transferred to this authority, the very notion of autonomous and independent entity is ruptured. The absence of the concept of audit bureau of circulation in terms of classification of newspapers is another point drawing attention. Such absence unnecessary perpetuates the irrelevant role of Press Council. The draft also includes the provision that legitimate ban would be imposed on newspaper is contradictory to the constitutional provision of not canceling the newspaper. The ditto lines on recording of newspapers from the previous versions of laws are equally worrying in the federal system, for the control on the record of the publications from local and provincial level is not imagined from the central mechanism. Actually, the registration of newspapers should be made easier rather than hassles of passing through various steps.

Separate certificate for registration and printing press reminds the rule before the dawn of democracy in Nepal in 1950. Keeping printing business under the mass communications in this modern time is quite preposterous. It is actually the issue to be regulated by company and tax law. The broadcasting media has been divided into public, community and private, but without clear basis and definition. The draft signals that the community media would be forced to act in line with the local government, which egregiously ignores the role and relevance of the community media. People and their problems, not government activities and directives should be at the center of community media. Random allocation of time/term of the frequency license for radio and television is also impractical. Frequency is public property indeed.

Going further, the online media operation directive is copy passed on the draft, to which Freedom Forum had already shown concern, arguing that it was not good to treat internet-based media like print media. In spite of exploring the innovative sides of information technology and facilitating freedom of expression, the registration and renewal provisions for online media objectionable. Objectionable is the intention to scrap the Working Journalists Act. FF, as an organization working untiringly for the protection and promotion of freedom of expression for over a decade, has observed this draft with the above reservation. However, FF is ready to collaborate and provide consultation how the draft bill on mass communication could be made inclusive, transparent and practical, thereby making it a document to boost the pillar of functional democracy in the changed federal setup.

Source: Free Expression
Issue 41 (January- March 2018)