Jail the messenger

There is freedom of expression in Nepal, but not necessarily freedom after expression.

Illustration: SUBHAS RAI

Scream lies to drown the truth.

Gag free expression with free expression.

Spread falsehood faster than facts.

Sow distrust so facts don’t matter.

Jail the messenger.

That is the tip sheet of populist demagogues the world over to add a poison tip to social media. The disinformation is intended to unravel the social fabric, and dismantle trust in institutions to gain power. Blocking their way are the liberal democratic system and the press, and this is why they are targeted.

It is easy for populism to strike roots in democracies, including Nepal, because some in the established parties and the legacy media have squandered hard-won freedoms through lack of accountability and power brokering. The proximity of media tycoons to elected leaders provides grist to this anti-‘elite’ narrative.

Despots around the world are learning from each other how to weaponise social media platforms. Big Tech companies made this job easy by basing their business model on algorithmic radicalisation that manufactures outrage. Users quickly learn to exaggerate rage and magnify wrath to amass more followers. Facebook, X, YouTube reward them with digital pheromones, turning them into addicts.

In a commencement speech at Harvard University this week, Nobel Prize winning Filipino journalist Maria Ressa blamed Big Tech of coding divisions in society with hate speech, and being “the accelerant to conflict and violence”.

She went on: “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, no rule of law, no democracy.”

Elected despots enabled by Big Tech spread chaos and break down trust. Which is why journalism is in the crosshairs: we stand in the way by standing for rule of law and an open society.

Here in Nepal we have survived dark periods when freedoms were crushed under the jackboots of royal-military authoritarians. The press and the political parties fought for freedom together. After 1990 and 2006, the media was often critical of those in government, exposing wrongdoing, but for the most part the main parties shared the same values -- that press freedom and democracy are two sides of the same coin.

Now, the leader of an independent party that rose dramatically in the 2022 election on an anti-incumbent platform is behaving like autocrats of yore by attacking the media. Nepal’s Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane is himself a former anchor of a rabble-rousing tv show.

He was forced to resign during his first stint as home minister last year because of media exposures of his US citizenship issue. He deftly wriggled out of that one, and as home minister once again is charged with cheating depositors of several cooperatives of their savings and investing it in his tv channel.

The mainstream press relentlessly pursued this story, the most persistent being Nepal’s largest-circulation daily broadsheet, Kantipur. Last week, Lamichhane used the powers of his office to jail the paper’s publisher Kailash Sirohiya, strong-arming state agencies to detain him. A classic case of guilty until proven innocent.

The matter is in the Dhanusha court, and Siorhiya’s remand has been extended by another three days. There is little doubt that the publisher’s citizenship discrepancy, which could be a clerical oversight, has been used to hide skeletons rattling in Lamichhane’s own closet. The US Embassy in Kathmandu and international press freedom watchdogs have condemned the arrest.

Using some of the same social media mobilisation that got him elected, Lamichhane has unleashed troll platoons to cyber lynch anyone who dares question this vindictive abuse of office. The controversy stalled the budget session of Parliament for many weeks, as the opposition Nepali Congress (no saints themselves) demanded a house committee probe into the matter.

All top leaders of the three mainstream parties have said skeletons they use to blackmail each other and cancel each other out so nothing is ever investigated. Being the fourth largest in Parliament, Lamichhane’s RSP has the swing votes critical for this Left-led coalition to stay in power.

That is why top leaders of the Maoist Centre and the UML both looked away when Sirohiya was detained last week. They will benefit from journalists now too scared to investigate their scams. There is freedom of expression in Nepal, but not necessarily freedom after expression.

Nepal’s senior editors met Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal on Monday, and reminded him that this attack on the free press was happening on his watch. They handed him a statement that said: “There are serious questions about the manner in which Kailash Sirohiya was arrested and about the charges levelled against him, this is a direct attempt to put pressure on, and silence the independent press.’

Kunda Dixit

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