Controversy: Premier Dr. Ewart Brown and his Cabinet, above at a press conference, regularly come under media scrutiny, like all governments. A media law expert claims their Media Council Act threatens freedom of expression rights. *File photo by Kageaki Smith

Controversy: Premier Dr. Ewart Brown and his Cabinet, above at a press conference, regularly come under media scrutiny, like all governments. A media law expert claims their Media Council Act threatens freedom of expression rights. *File photo by Kageaki Smith

Provisions for a Government-controlled media council could face a legal challenge from the press, a leading lawyer has warned.

Timothy Marshall said the new Media Council Act 2010 threatened freedom of expression rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

He warned that if Government does push ahead with the Bill, in spite of a chorus of condemnation from international pressure groups, it would be opening itself up to potential court action.

Mr. Marshall, an expert in media law, successfully took on the United Bermuda Party Government in 1998 when it tried to use the existing Broadcast Commission to suppress radio talk shows in the run-up to the election.

He said he opposed any Government interference and urged MPs to reject the bill in favour of self-regulation from the media — the preferred option in the U.K. and other modern democracies.

“There is scope for this Bill, as drafted, to be challenged,” said Mr. Marshall, a senior partner at Marshall Diel & Myers.

“The Constitution guarantees freedom of expression.

“Government can bring legislation that is reasonable and measured provided it is consistent with the values of a democratic society. That would be the debate. Is this reasonable and measured and in the public interest?

“The fact the Premier has had a hard time with the press does not fit that criteria.”

Mr. Marshall said there are serious question marks, not just over the content of the draft, but the fact it is being introduced at all.

He added: “It is another instance where Government is seeking to regulate every aspect of our lives.

“Regulating what we hear and see carries with it a whole new bureaucracy which we can ill-afford at this time and creates expenses and costs the press certainly cannot afford.

“I would like to believe that each Member of Parliament will give serious consideration to the impact of this legislation and turn it back.

“This is very much out of step with other democratic countries.” Numerous overseas organisations, including the International Press Institute and the Centre for Law and Democracy, have already criticised the Act.

The main concern for many commentators is the proposed composition of the Council, with six of the 12 members to be appointed on the recommendation of the Premier.

A provision requiring him to consult with the Governor and the leader of the opposition does not go far enough for most critics.

Dominic Ponsford, editor of the influential U.K. Press Gazette, told the Bermuda Sun yesterday that the Act tilted the balance too far in favour of state control.

He added: “The Bermuda Government must rethink this plan.

“It has no place seeking to control appointments to a new press council.

“This is only one step away from state censorship and state control.

“If Bermudians value the freedom and prosperity that a healthy questioning news media promotes, they should resist this plan.”

The Media Council Bill 2010 was introduced in the house on May 7 and is likely to be debated later this month.