Censorship by the Press Council of social media publications leads to condemnation
On Thursday, Press Council Nepal released a statement saying it had warned a journalist and attracted the attention of a communications expert for his social media posts.
But critics were quick to point out that the Nepalese Press Council, as an autonomous statutory body promoting the standards of a free press, lacks the power to monitor social media content.
“Has the current Press Council law been changed? What clause in the law allows the council to monitor social media? Asked Rajendra Dahal, former president of the Nepalese Press Council. “Even if someone commits a crime through social media, there are other laws like cyber law to punish them.”
Article 8 of the Press Council Act 1992 talks about the function, duties and power of the council, but it focuses on newspapers and gives the council the power to investigate anti-social articles and objectionable offenses published there, although the code of conduct for journalists based on the law was amended in 2019, incorporating issues related to online portals.
In its statement, the council also said it wrote to Nepal Telecom Authority to block 15 other news portals in accordance with online media operating guidelines because they had not been registered.
However, the provisions of the guidelines were challenged in the Supreme Court.
“Since the provisions of the guidelines on online media operations contravene the constitution, we challenged them in the Supreme Court, but they have been pending for a long time,” said lawyer Baburam Aryal, one of the petitioners. against directives.
It is not only the Guidelines on the Exploitation of Online Media that have come under criticism, but also other attempts by the KP Sharma Oli government to restrict freedom of expression.
To expand the boundaries of the existing Press Council Act 1992, a new Media Council Bill was introduced to the Upper House in May 2019 to also incorporate audiovisual and online media.
But he was suspended after much criticism, including from ruling party lawmakers, of the considerable authority he gives the council, which could increase direct attacks on the free press.
Media experts believe that since the government has been unable to implement the provisions of the Media Council bill, it has attempted to muzzle free speech by sending its supporters to the council.
“Sending party cadres to the quasi-judicial body of government seems to terrorize the media and individuals,” said Yubaraj Ghimire, editor and media expert. “The Press Council is going beyond its competence with dishonest intentions. “
According to the Press Council Act 1992, the objectives of the council are to: create an atmosphere suitable for the development of healthy journalism, prescribe the code of conduct for journalism with a view to prohibiting the abuse of freedom of press ; maintain cordial relations between the press and the government of Nepal; maintain public morals and the dignity of citizens; and make continuous efforts to prohibit interference with the decency of freedom of the press and journalism.
In addition to the Media Council Bill, the government has also prepared a Mass Media Bill to incorporate different media like print, radio and television and replace existing laws like the Press Law. and publications, the Act on Active Journalists and the Law on National Broadcasting. He proposed a fine of up to 10 million rupees and a jail term of up to three years for violating its provisions.
However, the bill has not yet been tabled in Parliament.
The government’s information technology bill, presented to the now dissolved parliament, also gives authorities sweeping powers to block social media platforms if they are not registered in Nepal.
Experts have expressed concern that the bill could restrict freedom of expression online and increase surveillance of personal data.
But in the current absence of stricter laws it wants to impose, the government has the Press Council Act-1992 at its disposal.
The existing Press Council law may require clarifications, apologies and blacklist certain media organizations.
Experts say, however, that social media posts are linked to the individual freedom of citizens and the Press Council cannot even think of monitoring them.
“The council can’t even think of monitoring a citizen’s social media content let alone issuing warnings,” said Aryal, a cyber law specialist.
The council, according to its statement, issued a warning to Rojan Rai, a journalist associated with Sarokar Television, for posting on his Facebook page a photo of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, his press advisor Surya Thapa and the expert. from the media Ram Sharan Bajagain with a comment about their masks: “I see there are other places for the mask to cover, but I continued to cover my nose and mouth.”
Likewise, the council said it drew the attention of Bhanubhakta Acharya, who is currently in Canada as a media researcher, for sharing a cartoon, originally posted on thahakhabar.com, with the comment: Comrade ‘ Badal ‘Kumari.
Acharya said the Press Council was trying to control constitutionally guaranteed freedom of speech.
“This is an attempt to prevent individuals from exercising their constitutional right to free speech,” he told the Post via Facebook Messenger.. “In fact, the Nepal Press Council has done everything possible and has become a tool for the government to control the media. ”
However, Deepak Khanal, spokesperson for the Press Council, claimed that they had issued the warning only to journalists and those related to the media in accordance with the provision of the amended Code of Conduct for Journalists which speaks of their publications. on social networks.
“There is nothing to fear from our statement as we only asked for suggestions from the communications expert,” Khanal said. “The council had also warned journalists earlier in accordance with the provision of the code of conduct for journalists.”
But other observers say the latest incident is yet another example of the government’s arbitrariness.
Bipul Pokhrel, president of the Federation of Nepalese Journalists and ex officio member of the Press Council, called the decision to issue the statement irresponsible.
He said he was not aware of the council’s decision to issue a statement because it was made by a subcommittee related to oversight of the code of conduct.
“How can the board monitor individuals’ social media posts? Pokhrel told the Post. “It is beyond the competence of the board and it is irresponsible.”
He said the council should be limited to its jurisdiction and that the federation will present its statement regarding the decision soon.
According to Taranath Dahal, chief executive of the Freedom Forum, a civil liberties organization, the government is trying to build a narrative that favors its interests by censoring social media posts.
“The council not only went beyond its purview, but also became a tool of government to create a unique narrative where criticism has no place,” he told the Post.
Even provincial governments began to follow the Oli administration’s attempts to control the media.
On June 7, a bill on the media was tabled in the Lumbini Provincial Assembly with a number of provisions aimed at muzzling press freedom and the right of expression.
The proposed bill gives the provincial press registrar the power to block the registration and renewal of media and to punish them for violating its provisions, including the need to register all media, including online portals of the province, even if they have already been registered at the center. The bill proposed that the provincial government could cancel media registration, block content and jail a person for up to a year.
“There are serious provisions in the bill that could muzzle freedom of the press and freedom of expression, including unnecessary sanctions and cancellation of the license,” said Pokhrel, president of the Federation of Nepalese journalists. “The establishment of a Media Council under the leadership of a provincial minister is also unacceptable. “
The Federation of Nepalese Journalists has already demanded that the provincial government headed by Shankar Pokhrel, a close aide to Prime Minister Oli, withdraw the bill.
Lumbini’s Home and Law Minister Chet Narayan Acharya, however, said there was nothing to fear as the bill was drafted on the basis of federal laws. But he couldn’t name a single law on which he relied.
Observers see it as a broader tendency to silence critics of the government.
“The Oli administration’s series of legal provisions aimed at restricting press freedom and freedom of expression show that the government is determined to control the media, including social media wherever possible, in order to do silence criticism of the government, ”said Ghimire, the publisher.