In many countries across the world, even those with history of defending democracy and press freedom, the coronavirus pandemic has become a cover for suppression and control. Lockdowns are an excuse for crackdowns.
Just as quarantines curtail freedom of movement, so the global outbreak has been used to clamp down on the freedom of expression. To be sure, the trend started long before the coronavirus, as demagogues used the free media and free elections to stoke populism and get themselves elected.
The chief purveyors of falsehood are the ones who are using the pretext of ‘fake news’ to mute criticism. And here in Nepal, as the government of Prime Minister K P Oil is cornered in a intra-party power struggle, there is increasing intolerance of criticism as we have noted in this space in the past two years.
In a speech on May Day on Friday, Prime Minister Oli used the occasion to lash out at the press and social media for endangering Nepal’s stability. “The Nepal Communist Party and citizens will never allow attempts to undermine stability by those with vested interests,” he said.
Starting with the Penal Code criminalising satire, the ban on journalists publishing personal information on public officials, drafting a Media Council Bill that could haul journalists over the coals on vague infringements, jailing bloggers and YouTubers, and a draft Information Technology Act with hefty fines for ‘improper’ social media posts, it looks like the government strategy is to gag the media in installments.
Some of these provisions are being applied to critics of the government, but selectively, so that people accused of crimes of the same nature during the nation-wide lockdown get different punishments.
Some who have been tracked down for Facebook posts on social media have been returned to their guardians, others like former secretary Bhim Upadhyaya last week was imprisoned on charges of spreading misinformation about the Covid-19 pandemic and defaming senior government officials. He has since been released on bail, but the message is to kill the messenger. He is being made example of, so others behave themselves.
Upadhyaya was the 14th person to be charged under the Electronic Transaction Act during the COVID-19 lockdown. Of these, the Police Cybercrime Bureau has filed cases against two individuals while the Metropolitan Crime Division has charged one. Police have also taken in five for ‘posting baseless information’.
Despite being an ex-bureaucrat, Upadhyaya was an outspoken critic of the government on social media. It is believed he was being ‘taught a lesson’ by a government secretary whom he implicated in the alleged scam involving the contract to buy Chinese COVID-19 test kits.
Since then, a youth in Ilam was arrested for spreading misinformation about the current pandemic via social media. Another in Makwanpur was detained for posting a photoshopped image of President Bidya Devi Bhandari and Prime Minister K P Oli on Facebook. Young men in Siraha and Hetauda were taken in this week for posting false information about the pandemic.
A Christian pastor was arrested in Kaski for posting a YouTube video that proclaimed Jesus Christ as a protector against the pandemic. In Kathmandu, others have been arrested for ridiculing the prime minister on Facebook. Half a dozen others have been detained for COVID-19 related posts on social media.
On Thursday, Police took journalist Deepak Pathak into custody for criticising NCP co-chair Pushpa Kamal Dahal in a Facebook post. Dahal had earlier filed a complaint at the Press Council against Pathak.
Obviously, the government has to stop the spread of rumours and panic about the disease through social media, but it appears that different legal processes have been applied to similar cases. And in many of them, the punishment appears to be more severe for political criticism and satire.
The government’s over-reaction to reprimand the acting head of state-owned Radio Nepal and its news chief for broadcasting an interview with former Maoist ideologue and leader of the Nepal Samajbadi Party Baburam Bhattarai hints at a worrying underlying inability to take criticism.
In the live radio interview on the Antarsambad program broadcast last week, Bhattarai lashed out at the government calling it “incompetent and dictatorial”. As if to prove him right, the government got Radio Nepal to delete the interview from its website and to issue an apology for airing it.
As absurd as all this was, it must also be said that all elected governments (and even unelected kings) have since 1990 shamelessly used the state media as a propaganda tool. In fact, Bhattarai himself, when he was prime minister in 2011-13, axed a radio program for being critical of the government.
On World Press Freedom Day on 3 May, it may be worth reminding ourselves that no political party in Nepal seems to have a monopoly on intolerance.