Lawmakers in Nepal should reconsider several proposed laws that would threaten media freedom in the country if passed in their current form, the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors, media executives and leading journalists for press freedom said today.

The four bills are the Advertisement Regulation Bill, the IT Bill, the Nepal Media Council Bill, and the Public Service Broadcasting Bill.

“The biggest problems about the proposed bills are the high fines and long prison terms facing anyone who can be seen as saying something against the government”, Hiranya Joshi, programme manager at the Federation of Nepali Journalists, told IPI. “As for the Media Council, it would be totally controlled by the government.”

The federation has voiced its opposition to the bills, which it sees as threatening freedom of the press and of expression. However, journalists are not the only ones who view the bills as a threat: The federation has co-operated with, among others, the Nepal Bar Association, in trying to mitigate the potential damage from the bills.

“We have had discussions with the legislators about the bills and held demonstrations against them. I would say that we have had some success with the Media Council Bill, but less so with the IT Bill”, Joshi said.

Speaking to The Guardian, Taranath Dahal, the chair of IPI’s Nepal National Committee, said that the laws will be used to target the media and journalists, which will lead to self-censorship, ultimately harming democracy.

The planned legislation comes just two years after a new penal code took effect in Nepal with several highly problematic provisions for press freedom. The code bans, among other things, taking photos of people without their consent outside of public spaces, the criminalization of satire that disrespects someone, and the dissemination of personal information, even if said information concerns people in the public spotlight. Journalist groups in Nepal had strongly criticized the provisions as failing to make allowances for journalism’s role of scrutinizing public figures.

“Any attempt by the government to stifle press freedom and restrict access to information by journalists will undermine the nascent democracy in the country”, IPI Director of Advocacy Ravi R. Prasad said. “A democracy that Nepal seeks to build cannot blossom without independent media and critical journalism. The government should work with journalists and media outlets to amend the proposed bill and ensure that there are no disproportionate restrictions imposed on the media in the new laws.”

‘A dark, dark, path’

The IT bill would require all social network services operating within the country to register with the Department of Information Technology. Additionally, the bill would ban any content on social media services with a detrimental effect on Nepal’s “national unity”. The term is not defined, leaving the door open for government misuse and spurious claims.

Those found guilty could face up to five years in prison and a fine of 1.5 million Nepalese rupees, or around 12,000 euros. The government can also order the removal of content violating “national unity”. Furthermore, the person responsible for uploading or posting it would face a penalty of one million rupees and/or five years in prison.

The president of the federation, Govinda Acharya, told IPI that the punishments contained within the bill were “not acceptable”.

Speaking more broadly, Acharya said that while he acknowledged “issues” in the Nepali media, the control the government would have over the media through the bills, coupled with the harsh punishments, was not the correct response.

“The government has continuously refused to listen to the stakeholders whom these bills would harm. They are not good for our democracy nor our country. This is a dark, dark path”, Acharya said.

The IT bill also aims to set up IT tribunals in every state, which would have the power to punish all who are deemed to have violated its regulations. The members of the tribunals would be appointed by the government. Handing over judicial powers to a tribunal outside of the regular courts is a grave threat to the separation of powers which is the basis of the country’s constitution.

Protection for undefined ‘national unity’

The problematic term “national unity” is mentioned in the other bills as well, where it is also not clearly defined. The bill on public service broadcasting foresees a new broadcasting company with the explicit aim of producing and broadcasting content “promoting nationality, national unity and territorial integrity”. The new broadcaster would be born out of a merger between the existing public television and radio broadcasters.

The Advertisement Regulation Bill would, among other things, delegate powers relating to advertising to a government-led Advertisement Board. The board would, for example, have the power to restrict the time any given advertisement is allowed to appear in the media. Additionally, the bill would ban any advertisement seen as causing “harm to Nepal’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationality”. In addition, the bill would ban any dubbed advertisements to be run in the nation’s media, and force all foreign TV channels broadcast in the country to run a “clean feed”, meaning that they would not be allowed to broadcaster any advertisements.

Finally, the “Nepal Media Council Bill” envisages the creation of a code of ethics for the media, though what that code would include is still not clear. The proposed media council would oversee the media’s adherence to the code, punishing those who do not abide by it. Troublingly, the new council will be under the strict control of the government, with the vast majority of its members nominated by the government.

“The media council bill is on hold, at least for now”, Acharya said. “We will continue to discuss it with the politicians and drive for including amendments to it. The constitution calls for the freedom of the press which guarantees an open and democratic society.”

According to Joshi, though the federation is not currently thinking about going on a strike over the proposed bills, the possibility of industry actions exists.

“We can do that, of course, but not now, at least. We will continue the discussions with legislators and other stakeholders”, Joshi said.