The government’s attempt to tighten control around online media suffered a setback with the Supreme Court’s interim order but two notices issued within six days by the state agency show they are not backing.
The latest notices by the Department of Information and Broadcasting are examples of the state’s intention to control online media.
In March 2017, the then Ministry of Information and Communication issued the ‘Online Media Operation Directives’ using the powers under the Good Governance (Management and Operation) Act 2008. The Directives therefore was born off a law irrelevant to the media.
The preamble of the Act states that it was expected to make ‘public administration of the country pro-people, accountable, transparent, inclusive and participatory’. The Directives is issued under Clause 45, which has no relations whatsoever to media:
Clause 45: Directive or Manual may be framed: Government of Nepal, for the purpose of carrying out the activities of government offices or work performance in a manageable, speedy and economical manner in terms of process, may frame and implement necessary directive or manual.Good Governance (Management and Operation) Act 2008
The Directives was not issued under the Press and Publication Act or National Broadcasting Act – the two laws that govern print and broadcast media in Nepal. There was also the possibility of drafting a different law for online media if the necessity was felt.
The Directives states that to operate an online media, it would be registered and renewed annually. It states online media may not be operated without registration.
A writ against the Directives is waiting to be heard at the Supreme Court. Issuing an order on the different writ, the Court however has issued an order to nullify Clause 6 (3) of the Directives that states the services of the online media could be blocked if not renewed annually.
Despite the order from the bench of judges Deep Kumar Kakri and Sushma Lata Mathema on April 13, 2021, the state agency has not shown stopped work on the renewal process. There are decisions, one after another, to continue the renewal process.
On July 4, 2022, the Department of Information and Broadcasting issued a notice stating that ‘online media’s registration will not be canceled or operation of online media will not be blocked for not renewing now onwards’ in line with the Supreme Court’s order.
However, the same notice also states that ‘the renewal will be continued for online media that have been renewed annually’. The notice also warns online media without renewal will not be issued press credentials.
On July 25, the Department issued another notice referring to the Supreme Court order and stated ‘registration will be renewed for online media failing to renew earlier if audit of last financial year, tax clearance certificate, company renewal, and other necessary documents’.
The notice doesn’t state anything about what would happen to the online media failing to renew. However, the Department as stated in earlier notice, may deprive them of press credentials and other services.
To publish a newspaper in Nepal, although registration is mandatory to start it, there is no provision of annual renewal. FM radio and television stations have to renew annually paying 2 percent of their total income as broadcasting fees.
In principle, both radio and television use frequency – a limited resource. The state has the renewal process to ensure that the valuable resource is not wasted by stations not using them. However, there is no limitation of frequency on online media and therefore it’s illogical to have provision to renew annually for online media.
It’s also notable that registration or renewal doesn’t stop wrong practices seen in ‘online media’. Nepali online can be operated from abroad and many websites which are spreading propaganda, disinformation and misleading titles are unregistered and operated from within and outside the country.
The state hasn’t even followed up on registered online media – they have registered online media where they are non-operational and some of registered online media have been found uploading porn contents or contents deemed illegal from Nepal’s laws. Therefore, the concept of registered online media operate professionally is wrong.
If the state wants to facilitate the development of online media, the best way forward is to make them equal to newspapers – asking them to inform at the beginning and about ownership or editorial change.