What about Multiple Media Councils?- Harsha Man Maharjan | 2021-09-24
Harsha Man Maharjan
The Media Council Bill tabled by the government has stirred up opposition from Nepali media fraternity. The voices keep coming to scrap the bill altogether. Provisions related to the structure of the organisation and penalties for violation of code of ethics are a couple of thorny issues for others demanding amendments. Chairperson of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) has strongly challenged the government’s proposals. Media organisations have maintained the possibility of establishing their own councils. Scholars have been debating whether Nepali media sector is ready for such a transition.
CollisionThe opposing proposals are headed for a collision course. But this does not have to be the case. Official media councils and professional media councils can co-exist. Official media councils will be headed by representatives from legislative or judicial or executive, or the state will cover all the expenses. Unofficial media councils are formed and funded by media industry. In this article, I propose such a provision.
There was no law to govern the Press Advisory Council formed in 1969. The amendment of the Press and Publication Act in 1970 August created the provision for Press Council consisting of eleven members including standing judge as the chair. When the new council was formed in the following month, Surendra Bahadur Basnet was appointed as the chair. He was the member of the Rastriya Panchayat at that time. Since then, all other committees of the Press Councils were chaired by a judge till 1990. This changed after new Act governing the press council was enacted in 1992. It allowed a retired judge of supreme court or a person who has contributed in the field of newspaper to be appointed as the chair. Following the act, the government started to appoint journalists as the chair of the council.
The government selected all the members of the council. The council did not have much autonomy and was not independent. The need of media reform was being felt. High Level Media Commission (formed in 2008) suggested making PC more inclusive by having representatives from communities such as women, dailit, indigenous, and madhesi. It also recommended that the members of the council be not engaged in media organisations. A media-law study by Taranath Dahal and Bhimarjun Acharya suggested going back to appointing a senior judge as the chair. They also advised to take out the classification of newspapers from the purview of the council. Similarly, another study by Binod Dhungel suggested making it more autonomous by restructuring the council. He proposed to shift the ownership of press council from governments to the parliament.
The issues of autonomy and recommendations have been ignored by the bill. The council will consist of nine members including, the chair with Bachelor level education and ten-year experience of journalism. A committee coordinated by the secretary of the ministry suggests the chair.
Several provisions have to be amended to make the council more autonomous. The council should be chaired by a retired judge and not journalists. Different types of media such as print, radio, television, online and the public should have representations. The representatives from the ministry should be token. There should be minimal interference from the government in the committee that selects the chair. Finally, the council should be under the parliament and not the government.
Media sector has concerns with the changing role of media council to take legal decisions and slap fines. A provision in the bill allows the council to fine journalists or media companies NRs. 10,000 to NRs. 10,00,000 if any aggrieved person files a complaint before the council in violation of the code of ethics. Then the journalists and media companies could appeal in higher court within 45 days against the decision of the council.
This is an attempt to convert the ‘toothless tiger’ to ‘the tiger with teeth’. In the Press Council Act, 1992 the maximum step the council could take is to recommend the government to suspend the facilities of a journalist. Such punishment was given after failure to follow council’s request to publish an apology, or statement of the aggrieved party. Annual reports of Press Council show many cases of non-compliance with the recommendations given by the council. As a last resort, the proposed draft of Press Council Nepal Act, 2074 BS contains an extra provision of forwarding such non-compliance cases for legal action. The draft Act is available on press council’s website. The government should not make the press council a ‘toothless tiger’. For this, it should consult with media fraternity and come up with ways to make Nepali media more responsible to the public.
Private media need to establish their own media council with an aim to promote quality journalism and to have better relationship between state, media and public. They need to prepare a blueprint of the modality of their members and the chair that is inclusive of all media and the public they cater to. Foremost, it has to be ensured that big media houses do not influence the council or that big investors don’t have a bigger say. Public will not trust yet another council for the sake of it. And rightfully so. The media fraternity would need to think that this forum is for debating the vital issues of the media sector, not to fulfill their own stress. Having representatives from the public could be one way to make it credible. Learning from the mistakes is another.
AutonomyStrong case can be made for setting up multiple media councils. Autonomy and independence are the two popular arguments. The official council with less interference from the government could execute its vision towards promoting press freedom. The unofficial councils can be central platforms to discuss about the genuine issues of media sector. We need more systems that make Nepali media accountable.
(Maharjan is affiliated to academic NGO Martin Chautari and interested in the issues related to media and technology)