By Siromani Dhungana
The present Press Council Act in Nepal need to be revisited, restructured and reformed to ensure the independence of the council and to establish it as a true ‘watchdog mechanism’.
After the appointment of new chairman at Press Council Nepal (PCN), the need of reforming the existing legal provision has further garnered its relevancy.
In what appears to be a controversial move of the Government of Nepal, it appointed former Supreme Court Justice Awadhesh Kumar Yadav as the Chairman of Press Council Nepal on January 25, 2013.
Reportedly, Yadav as the apex court Justice had issued an order to prevent the prosecution of a war-era criminal case against then Maoist lawmaker Keshab Rai.
Yadav had stayed the prosecution against Rai in a case related to the murder of Padam Bahadur Tamang in Okhaldhunga, citing that the to-be-formed Truth and Reconciliation Commission would deal with all the conflict-time cases.
Yadav’s order then had run into a serious controversy, as it had set a soft precedent that ‘cases that occurred during the insurgency cannot be addressed through regular justice system’, media reports suggest.
Awadesh Kumar Yadav’s appointment has not only threatened the rule of law but also has breached the judicial precedent. The government has allegedly undermined the Supreme Court ruling by appointing Yadav in Press Council Nepal. In a case of Subodh Man Napit vs Government of Nepal in 2010, SC had issued a directive, saying ‘appointment of the apex court justice in any government post will be against the principle of independence of judiciary’.
Professional organizations have started volleying a barrage of criticism to the government following Yadav’s appointment at the Press Council Nepal. The question, however, is not appointment but the system.
In Nepal, Press Council is a statutory body set up by the government to promote the standards of a free press in a democratic society and to advise the government on matters relating to the development of healthy and credible journalism in the country.
However, consecutive governments have been failing to ensure the credibility of Press Council by appointing their nearer and dearer in executive role. The function of Council itself has been limited to protect the government rather than helping media to maintain their independence and implementing code of conduct independently.
Interestingly, the flocks who have been appointed or who were in executive role following the same process and continued the same system, which is at present, criticize the government when the ruling party is against them.
In my opinion, the decision of the government to appoint Yadav as the chief of Press Council Nepal has proved that the country is still miles away to pursue reform in the existing system of the Council. The reform should be started from the system.
Article 6 of Press Council Act 1992 of Nepal delegates power to the Government of Nepal to appoint chairman and members of Press Council Nepal.
Moreover, the council works as a quasi-judicial body since it can recommend to the government for the suspension, in whole or in part, of any privilege or facility receivable by him with respect to a journalist who is in defiance of the professional code of conduct repeatedly.
The most controversial function of Press Council Nepal is classification of newspapers on the basis, inter alia, of the number of the publications made under article 11 of Press Council Act 1992. The government provides facilities to the newspapers based on the classification provided by the council. Many newspaper owners suppose that the classification of newspaper is not neutral. The newspaper classification by the council often attracts criticism for its alleged bias to political parties affiliated newspapers.
The common understanding is that the PCN classify newspapers having affiliation to ruling party with high score and recommends the government to provide more facilities.
The press is deemed to be a watchdog of the society and the Press Council, in principle, is expected to be the watchdog of the press. It is a forum where people can send the complaints against irresponsible functioning of media. However, direct political interference at the watchdog mechanism will do nothing more than converting it as ‘lapdog’.
The Press Council Nepal has two challenges before it: securing independence of the press and making the press accountable. Political will is a must to make PCN to face these challenges. Similarly, media professionals should breakaway from greed and put pressure to government to reform the system. Otherwise, Press Council Nepal will be nothing more than a facility distribution agency.