Photo: Nepal still trying to recover from the devastating earthquake of October 2015. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne |IDN-INPS - Photo: 2019

Government Exam for Journalists in Nepal Riles the Profession

By Kalinga Seneviratne

KATHMANDU (IDN) – The democratically elected Communist Party government in this former Hindu Kingdom is trying to change decades old media laws that were enacted before the digital age and is running into opposition from journalists who fear that the government is trying to muzzle a free media. 

“The communist party came to power with a two-thirds majority in 2017 and they didn’t come to enhance media freedom,” argues Kunda Dixit, Editor and publisher of the popular weekly Nepali Times. But he believes that the government does not want to do it suddenly.

“We call it censorship by instalments,” he told IDN. “They have a media council bill, another information technology bill, they have another bill to set up website monitoring. They want to have arbitrary laws that an editor of a newspaper can be charged for what he posts in social media.”

Dixit points out that in the media council bill they want to set up “supposedly an independent ombudsman, but directly controlled by the government”. Even owners of ISPs can be sent to jail for contents they allow to be posted “because they (government) say you are responsible for It”.

These bills are debated in parliament with the media council bill already in the upper house. But people have gone to the streets to protest in recent weeks. An amendment to the media council bill proposed by the Nepal Communist Party lawmakers end of August has riled journalists because it suggests an examination to be conducted by the government before one could practice as a journalist.

“The planned amendment will require aspiring editors and journalists to take an exam to be allowed to join the profession. But it is not convincing that such a move will improve journalism,” argued Kathmandu Post in an editorial on September 5. It pointed out that such an idea was proposed by a task force of the Nepal Press Council four years ago and opposition by the Federation of Nepali Journalists as an infringement on the journalist’s right to expression, the recommendation of the task force was not adopted until now.

While many other professions require a practitioner to obtain a license to practice that may require to sit for exams or practical tests to judge one’s competency, journalism profession has steadfastly refused to accept such a licensing regime, arguing that journalism is an unique profession where the practitioners should not be shackled with unnecessary restrictions or tests. They have argued that the ultimate test is with their readers or consumers.

Ghamaraj Luitel, chairman of the Media Academy at Tribhuvan University is against such exams, and questions at what level and on what subject matter you are going to test them before giving a practicing license.

“Economics, politics, environment and many other subjects may need to come in, because journalism is an open area,” he told IDN. “Scientists, economists could come into the professions. They need to learn the skills (of media practice) and any media organization can set an exam if they wish, not governments”. Something like conducting a panel discussion or making a program may be a possible test to judge one’s ability to handle journalistic work, notes Luitel.

Dixit says that requiring those entering the profession to have some “minimum academic qualifications is a good idea”. Luitel points out that the journalism profession now requires candidates to have done a degree and it should be left to the employer to judge their suitability. “A media council should not have the power to test them,” he says.

The task force’s secretary Deepak Khanal told Kathmandu Post that what they proposed four years ago was only an exam for young journalists to test their knowledge of the code of conduct for journalists. Yet, if they are mass communication graduates this is already taught in such courses and tested.

However, the government’s attempts to rewrite media laws has come about due to public pressure. A vocal section of the public alarmed at the proliferation of websites and social media that is unreliable and trigger social chaos, have demanded that media laws be amended to control such media.

Nepal has three laws that apply to the media – the Media and Communication Act, National Broadcasting Act of 1993 and Press and Publications Act of 1991. The government wants to replace these with one umbrella act that covers all media including online media that is very popular in Nepal with over 2000 local news portals.

Luitel believes that since the Communist Party (that includes the old leftist Maoists who fought a guerilla war against the Nepali government for decades) came to power by the democratic vote they want to preserve democracy in the country. “Government wants to make new laws to make it timely,” he says. “For 30 years the laws have been the same. There was no FM radio then nor the online media. So, it is time to change the law.”

Guitel, who was formerly the station manager of Nepal’s first community radio station Radio Sagarmatha, says that FM radio and online media is very influential in the country. “Any act introduced in a democracy will have pro and opposition to it. If something is right let us say so,” he argues, but adds, he is not yet convinced if the attempts to draft new laws are on the correct path.

Meanwhile Rajendra Dahal, former chairman of the Press Council of Nepal argues that if there is a need to sit for exams for entering the journalism professional similar criteria may need to be adopted to enter politics, as the ethics and behavior of politicians are increasingly being questioned. 

“Citizens have a right to express their feelings, just like how they enjoy walking on the footpaths. Press freedom falls on the right of expression and it‘s not good to bar or restrict press freedom,” he says. [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 September 2019]

Photo: Nepal still trying to recover from the devastating earthquake of October 2015. Credit: Kalinga Seneviratne | IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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