Noonday demons

Statements by Shrish Shumsher Rana, the minister of state for information and communication, about the civic polls and media control were not surprising, though objectionable. His view of the elections fully reflected the recent royal address, and he had said soon after assuming office that the existing media laws are inadequate and that new laws are needed to exercise greater control over the media — of course, in the name of ‘upgrading professionalism in journalism’. At Monday’s press conference, he said the government is making media laws and the violators will be punished. Rana also criticised journalists’ organisations for staging anti-government protests.

But few believe the government’s efforts are aimed at strengthening media freedom and encouraging accountability, as the provisions of the widely condemned recent media ordinance and its attempts, including physical force, to muzzle the media, have made the public highly sceptical of its intentions. The public impression is that the government wants to settle scores with the media, as most of them have supported the movement of the seven political parties. On the contrary, the state-run media, both print and electronic, have been backing the government to the hilt, while taking particular care to put the opposition in a poor light. The other day when Rana accused the critical sections of the media of ‘playing politics rather than practising professional journalism’, he questioned neither the state media, run at the public expense, nor the pro-government sections of the private press.

Not only that, the government’s one-door advertisement policy has been used mainly as a tool for rewarding supporters and punishing the critics. The media must be free to publish truth and to comment on issues of interest to the public and society, however distasteful such news and views may appear to the powers-that-be. In any democracy worth the name, nobody can claim exemption from media criticism. At the same time, it is the duty of the media to publish truth. But whether anything is libellous or, if so, what punishment to be awarded, is something to be decided by a competent court of law. There may indeed be intermediate agencies such as a media council to help settle disputes triggered by anything published by newspapers or broadcast by the radio and TV. But no government can arrogate to itself the right to sit in judgement on the media and mete out punishment itself. Moreover, this lame duck government is not supposed to make laws. That task must be reserved for a duly elected one.