Ensuring Editorial Freedom
In July this year, the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology (MCIT) was given the go ahead by the Council of Ministers to draft a Mass Communication Act, to serve as an umbrella act for media laws. The ministry has worked hard on it and will be able to send the draft to the parliament very soon. Consequently, two drafts of the Act have been readied - one drafted by a committee formed by the government and another by the Federation of Nepali Journalists (FNJ).
Before moving on to the content of the drafts, it would in order to talk a little about how the proposed Act has come into being. On February 3, 2016, the government had constituted a 21-member High-Level Drafting Committee for a National Mass Communication Policy, 2016 (NMCP), which was headed by Kashi Raj Dahal, chairperson of the Administrative Court, and comprising media law experts.
I served in the committee as a media expert along with media-related stakeholders, such as the FNJ, Media Society Nepal and Society for Madhesi Journalists, among others. The Dahal Committee drafted the policy and handed it over to Prime Minister K.P Oli on July 21, 2016, which the government adopted as the National Mass Communications Policy (NMCP) just two days after accepting it. The committee had reviewed various related resources, such as the Constitution of Nepal, previous media policy, Indian media laws, BBC Constitution, readings from the UK media regulatory body, the Office of Communication (OfCom), and consulted extensively with the stakeholders before reaching a conclusion.
The NMCP mainly includes provisions to ensure freedom of expression, right to information, prohibition on foreign workers and putting a limit on foreign investment in the media sector. In addition to this, some new institutions, such as a Mass Communication Authority, as a media regulatory body, has been conceived. It also incorporates a clean-feed provision, which makes it mandatory for Nepali broadcasters to air international programmes and news without their advertisements.
Then on December 22, 2016, the Council of Ministers had formed another high-level committee under the chairmanship of Dahal to implement the NMCP, the draft Act by the Dahal Committee. This committee comprised eight members, in which I and Bait Basinet, editor of the weekly Ghana Ra Bihar, were nominated by the government as experts.
The committee conducted seminars in every province to collect suggestions and also got feedback through emails and letters. The committee accomplished its tasks in January 2018 by producing three drafts of the Act – A Mass Communication Act, Advertisement Regulatory Act, and Public Broadcasting Nepal Act. These drafts were prepared based on the current Constitution of Nepal and the NMCP.
The draft of the Mass Communication Act is an umbrella act that consists of four topics - Mass Communication Authority, Advertisement Council, Mass Communication Academy, online newspapers and working journalists. It has proposed giving birth to some new institutions, such as the Advertisement Council, Mass Communication National Authority and Mass Communication Academy. It also has provisions to protect national interest by limiting foreign investment and prohibiting foreign workers in the Nepali media sector. However, Nepal has adopted a policy of welcoming foreign investment and a free-market policy.
Besides, the draft encourages all media houses to adopt self-regulation by introducing and formulating a public code of conduct, editorial policy, and carrying out a financial audit every year. Similarly, it calls for the establishment of an ombudsman, an independent regulatory body, to regulate published matters and make suggestions and give feedback to the management.
The Advertisement Council (AC) is a regulatory, autonomous and semi-judicial body to regulate advertisements. But the government machinery is often reluctant to create a strong organisation because of its inadequate knowledge about public institutions. It could stop the airing and publishing of fake advertisements. The Audit Bureau Circulation (ABC) also comes under the proposed AC, which examines the circulation of newspapers and target rating point (TRP) of radio and TV.
Similarly, the Mass Communication National Authority is an apex regulatory body of journalists and mass communication-related organisations. It is very much like the Office of Ofcom, which makes media organisations follow the rules in the UK. Furthermore, it will look after and mediate conflicts as and when they arise. All apex office bearers of the National Mass Communication Authority will be selected by a Speaker-led high-level committee in the parliament to make the selection process impartial.
A Mass Communication Academy has been conceived in order to produce skilled human resources and enhance the capacity of working journalists. Nepal does not have a single well-equipped mass communication academy to train journalists and media-related workers. Nevertheless, quite a number of semi-skilled journalists have been entering the market every year.
In addition, the draft of the Act consists of some provision relating to national interest. Foreign investment has been limited to less than 25 per cent of the total investment, and foreigners are prohibited from working in the media sector. A clean feed provision in broadcasting has been included in the drafted acts. These provisions are intended to protect the national interest.
However, some media houses have 100 per cent foreign investment and foreign staff in the newsroom and marketing department. The government’s attempt last year to enforce the clean feed failed due to lack of sufficient laws. There has been mounting pressure on the government from the Nepali advertising sector to implement the clean feed policy for the last five years, but Indian cable operators are reluctant to abide by the new rule.
The FNJ-drafted Act has similar provisions, except that it is silent on foreign workers, which goes against the objectives of the FNJ. Foreign workers could wrongly influence the management and erode the editorial freedom and national interest of the country. In such an event, both the people and country would suffer badly. The FNJ’s primary aim is to safeguard freedom of expression, right to information, editorial freedom and working journalist’s professional interests. However, its silence on allowing foreign workers in the media sector in the drafted Act goes against its very principle.
Minister for Mass Communication and Information Technology Gokul Banskota has vowed at public programmes to give the people, journalists and the media industry an inclusive, friendly Mass Communication Act (MCA) to foster national interest and support to creating a conducive environment for a prosperous Nepal. The draft prepared by the Dahal Committee would help meet these aspirations of the ministry. But we all need to be cautious of the bureaucratic red-tape since our bureaucracy has yet to be media-friendly.
(Rai is a freelancer and worked as a media expert in the National Mass Communication Policy drafting High-level Committee)