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Nepal: Concern over draft Mass Communications Act

A man scans the front pages of newspapers at a kiosk in Basantapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 August 2017
A man scans the front pages of newspapers at a kiosk in Basantapur Durbar Square, Kathmandu, Nepal, 25 August 2017

Narayan Maharjan/NurPhoto via Getty Images

This statement was originally published on on 29 January 2018.

The Government of Nepal has come up with a draft bill of the "Mass Communications Act" that aims to revoke three existing acts related to the communications sector namely, the Press and Publication Act 2048 BS, the National Broadcasting Act 2048 BS and the Working Journalist Act 2051 BS.

As an institution working in the field of freedom of expression, communications and information for over a decade, Freedom Forum has serious concerns over the draft bill.

The bill is said to be consolidated, aiming to keep the mass communications sector fair, independent, transparent and professional in order to uphold democratic practice.

Freedom Forum has the following concerns regarding the draft bill-

1. This draft bill has been consolidated to regulate the entire communications sector under a single umbrella act. This is a positive and welcome step.

2. FF has reservations over a number of definitions such as 'mass communications', 'journalist' and 'press representative'. This needs to be corrected.

3. The bill has envisioned the establishment of a National Mass Communications Authority, tasked with regulating licenses and professional ethics and promoting self-regulation. Although the concept of establishing such an authority is positive, the committee responsible for recommending the establishment of the said authority appears to be biased. Stakeholders must be consulted in order to determine the rights, duties and responsibilities of the authority.

4. The draft bill has proposed that the authority shall have the right to distribute government advertising. This is irrational and ludicrous in the context of the current governance set up.

5. FF is concerned over the provision that mentions employees of the authority shall be provided by the State. This hampers the autonomy and independence of the authority.

6. Although the provision relating to the new system of newspaper registration is positive, the old registration method has made this difficult. Also the documentation of publications at the provincial and local level is centralized.

7. The proposed segregation made in relation to the management of newspapers has not considered the concept of the Audit Bureau of Circulation, which might continue with interference from the government and questions the relevance and existence of Press Council. This issue must be addressed seriously.

8. The bill provides grounds for the control of newspapers through legitimate means which is against the protection of newspapers on constitutional grounds.

9. Traditional and irrelevant provisions such as compelling the registration of the printing press, and the issuance of certificates have been incorporated in the bill. Placing printing businesses under the regulation of mass communications in today's world is deplorable.

10. Some of the provisions in the draft bill are aimed at discouraging the creative use of new technology in the broadcasting sector.

11. A double taxation system for fees and royalties in the broadcasting sector has been maintained in this bill as well.

12. The draft bill provides grounds for the cancellation of a permission letter for the broadcast of banned news which is cause for serious concern.

13. Although the broadcasting medium has been segregated into public broadcasting, community broadcasting and private broadcasting, there is no proper definition and grounds for segregation. Also, it has become mandatory for community broadcasting outlets to provide advertisements about the local government.

14. Although the provision stipulates consent for the periodic permission of radio and television frequencies, the period classified seems inappropriate and irrational.

15. One of the serious concerns over the bill is the incorporation of the controversial Online Media Operation Directive. The provision that stipulates teh registration, renewal, certification and commercialization of the online media platform is cause forserious concern.

16. The Bill revokes the Working Journalist Act 2051 BS. With the annulment, journalists' rights are also revoked. Although the act has been revoked, the committee formed to determine the minimum wage for journalists still remains operational. This issue needs to be discussed thoroughly.

17. Section 45 of the bill has a positive provision regarding self-regulation by media houses. However, if this provision is invoked, there is no need for nor relevance of the Press Council. Still, the Council Act has not been revoked by this bill. This kind of double standard is inappropriate.

18. Another provision that results in serious concern is the provision for the press representative. The provision is the same as before. Keeping a similar provision for the certification of a press representative by the government results in accreditation in the media sector. This is against the fundamental norm of press freedom. This bill supports the provision whereby someone is declared to be a journalist by the State, which is an undemocratic practice.

19. The bill contains a similar provision on restrictions to publication and broadcasting as per the constitutional standards, yet the regulation of these restrictions is not clearly defined. Similarly, broadcasting in contravention of the restricted provisions is deemed a criminal offence and treated as a State party offence.

20. The bill has envisioned some new institutions such as a mass communications training foundation, a communications museum, an information bank, a journalist welfare fund etc. which might create an unnecessary financial burden for the government.

21. If this bill gets the status of an Act, currently operating media outlets would be required to reapply for registration. This provision invites unnecessary government interference.

22. This bill has incorporated many provisions relating to the media, although the provisions are ambiguous and vague, which gives grounds for the drafting of many by-laws and regulations that would ultimately suppress press/media freedom.

23. After the commencement of this Act, the Press Council Act becomes irrelevant. Thus the Press Council Act must also be revoked.

24. As per the bill, the books published in Nepal must also be registered which is again an irrational and ridiculous provision.

This is our initial response to the proposed Mass Communications Bill 2018. This bill needs to be discussed seriously; hence FF has initiated a thorough study on its provisions. We will furnish our feedback to the concerned authority as soon as possible. This issue needs serious consideration from the media fraternities, freedom of expression advocates, citizens and political parties.

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