Rights activists say Oli government heading towards authoritarian rule

- TIKA R PRADHAN, Kathmandu

May 17, 2019-

Civil society members and human rights activists said on Friday that the government is heading towards authoritarianism, as its recent actions have been aimed at curtailing civil liberties, freedom of expression and freedom of press.

Expressing solidarity with the Federation of Nepali Journalists, an umbrella group of journalists across the country, rights activists and civil society members demanded that the government withdraw the Media Council bill from Parliament.

FNJ has launched a protest to press the government to withdraw the bill which it says will curb the press freedom.

Demanding the withdrawal of the Media Council Bill registered at the federal parliament hundreds of journalists and civil society members staged a gherao in front of the federal parliament at Baneshwor and at various district administration offices across the nation.

 On the last day of its week-long struggle against the media-related bills aimed at curtailing the free press in the country, Federation of Nepali Journalists organised a gherao programme at the federal Parliament along with the media equipment.

“It’s not a normal situation that journalists and rights activists are forced to take to the streets,” said Sundar Mani Dixit, a civil society leader, addressing the protest programme. “Government’s move to curb press and human rights body was authoritarian in nature and therefore its future looks bleak.”

 Talking about the Media Council bill, Dixit said the new law would muzzle the freedom of expression as well. “With the endorsement of the bill I could be liable to pay a million rupees for my speech if that hurt the rulers,” he added.

Saying he was a student of political science, another rights activist Kapil Shrestha said the activities of the KP Oli government indicates that it is heading towards authoritarian rule. “The bill would curb the freedom of expression and would only benefit the corrupts,” said Shrestha, the former member of National Human Rights Commission.

Addressing the gherao programme Govinda Acharya, chairman of the federation said the struggle was essential because the Media Council bill registered at the federal parliament violates the constitutional provision of full press freedom. “We will continue struggle unless the full press freedom is guaranteed,” said Acharya.

The Media Council Bill, which aims to replace the existing Press Council Act 1992 and was registered in Parliament on May 9, will have more authority to issue hefty fines and give the government more say in the hiring and firing of the council members.

The proposed bill aims to give sweeping powers to the self-regulatory body overseeing the press, and information rights activists and journalists have been saying that the new council could increase direct attacks on the press.

Experts have pointed out a number of flaws in the Media Council bill. The term of its chairperson and members is four years but clause 10 (2) states that the government can oust them anytime. With this provision in place, experts say, the council would remain as a section of ministry of communication and information technology.

 The controversial Media Council bill has not mentioned ‘autonomous body’ anywhere in the bill which shows the intention of the government to keep it under control. Even the draft of the bill prepared by the Press Council had stated that the council would be an autonomous body. Clause 31 of the bill states that the government can draft necessary rules to implement the Media Council Act while Clause 29 says that the government can direct the council which means the Media Council will have direct the media to implement the government’s instructions.

 Upon violation of the code of conduct, according to the existing Press Council Act, a journalist would be suspended with the facilities but the new bill has proposed a hefty sum – Rs 25,000 to 1 million—as fine.   

 Clause 12 (2) d of the existing Press Council Act states – the council may recommend Government of Nepal for the suspension of any privilege or facility wholly or partially received from Government of Nepal to a journalist who violates the professional code of conduct repeatedly.

Earlier on Tuesday separate delegations of the federation led by its chairman Govinda Acharya had handed over memorandum to Speaker of the House of Representatives Krishna Bahadur Mahara and Chairman of the National Assembly Ganesh Timilsina.

Mahara and Timilsina had told the journalists that they would facilitate for necessary discussions with the stakeholders including the federation.

Experts have also expressed concerns over the freewheeling provisions in the bill that allow anyone who feels that a report violates press ethics--not just the person or organisation reported--to file a complaint against the reporter, editor or publisher.

Not only the Media Council bill the government has come up with a number of media related bills violating the provisions of free press.

 However, the government has remained indifferent to the ongoing struggle against the media-related bills. After returning home following a week-long visit to Vietnam and Cambodia Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, on Wednesday, defended the bill, claiming that was brought to make the society ‘civilized’. He warned not to oppose the bill before it was discussed in the parliament. “The bill will be endorsed after proper discussions in the parliament. We need not shame the democracy talking before the parliament,” he said.

 Given the comfortable majority in the federal parliament and weak opposition, the Federation, fearing that would easily be endorsed, had started a phase-wise struggle –the first phase of which concluded today.

 Vice-chairman of the federation Bipul Pokhrel said second phase of stern struggle would be launched after holding the meeting of its central committee on Sunday

Published: 17-05-2019 21:00

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