Rule by law

Illustration: SUBHAS RAI

Nepal’s ruling unified Marxist-Leninist-Maoists have in the past year incrementally constricted freedom of expression, thinking no one will notice if they do it bit by bit.

It has not gone unnoticed. There is an uproar in social media and journalists have been speaking out, but the government is using its numerical might in Parliament to pass bills that blatantly flout constitutional guarantees of basic individual freedoms.

Read also: No freedom after expression, Kiran nepal

2019 saw censorship in installments, and it started with a revision of the Penal Code that criminalised ridicule, satire, photoshopped images of politicians, and even banned reporters publishing personal information of public figures. The Media Council Bill, a brainchild of Information Minister Gokul Banskota, sought to criminalise free speech on vague grounds.

The latest attack is the Information Technology Bill which was passed by a Parliament committee this week, and is sure to be voted through when the winter session begins. It has hefty fines and jail terms for any content deemed ‘offensive or demeaning’ -- infringement of Clause 83 is a fine of Rs1 million and/or jail term of up to five years, and any content that violates Clause 94 (ridicule and hate speech) carries a fine of Rs1.5 million and/or 5 years in jail. Strangely, the punishment for social media infractions are in fact much heavier than physical assault, libel or defamation in the legacy media.

Read also:

Spooking Nepalis by snooping on them, Mukesh Pokhrel

Censuring censorship, Editorial

'It is wrong for this bill that is supposed to regulate Information Technology to be misused to address issues for which there are existing laws,' wrote Kantipur in a strong editorial on Wednesday. 'Since the definition of defamation is so broad, this law will have a dampening effect on free expression, and foster self-censorship.'

Indeed, what constitutes objectionable content is intentionally so broadly defined that anyone can be hauled in for any online post at any time. There is even a new directive against satire painted in the backs of trucks. The government has not even waited for this Act to be passed to arbitrarily put people behind bars for Facebook posts, YouTube satire, or beat up someone for posting a video that painted an unflattering image of the Tourism Minister.

For formality’s sake, the bill was put to debate in the parliamentary committee, and the opposition Nepali Congress did push several amendments, none of which were accepted by NCP lawmakers. Now, the arithmetic of the full House means that the IT Act is sure to become law. Fundamental rights of citizens, guaranteed by the 2015 Constitution, are going to be severely curtailed.

Read also:

Creeping control over the press in Nepal, Ajay Pradhan

Gagging the press in installments, Sewa Bhattarai

“It is the government that will decide what you can say and what you cannot,” says NC MP Gagan Thapa in an online video. “Just because a government has a majority, it does not mean it can violate the basic principle of the Constitution.”

But Thapa is a voice in the wilderness, none of the other opposition politicians have bothered to speak up in defence of freedom of expression even when the attack is so systematic. Under the new law, internet service providers will be liable for content of users, and global platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok would be required to register in Nepal.

Other provisions of the IT bill would allow the state to snoop on anyone’s data, tap phones and intercept emails. Politicians want their privacy protected from media, but do not respect the individual’s right to privacy.

The ruling NCP seems to have decided that it can pressure the press by withholding advertising, making media moguls beholden to it for business, and tightening regulation.

For example, the NCP-affiliated Press Organisation surprised many by being inaugurated this week at the prime minister’s residence, where journalists took oaths to follow the party line on socialism. At least they did not swear by communism.

Read also:

Zip up, Rameshwar Bohora

A creeping coup, Editorial

The state sees the free-wheeling nature of the Internet and its impact on public opinion as more of a threat. Hence the attempt to restrict critical content on social media as its reach grows. More than 90% of Nepalis now have mobile phones, half of them are smart phones, and this proportion is growing. The Internet has become synonymous with Facebook as almost everyone with a smartphone has an account on that platform.

Why is Nepal’s kakistocracy in such a tearing hurry to pass this bill when much more urgent legislation on federalism and other laws languish in Parliament? Journalists and citizens may not be arrested right away, but clearly the intention is detention. This is not rule of law, but a draconian rule by law.

10 years ago this week

Ten years ago Nepali Times marked the end of a year and a decade of war, and tried to be hopeful about the future. As feared, the 2010-2019 was a lost decade. Excerpt from a publisher’s note on the front page of issue #483 of 1-6 January 2010:

Back in 2000, we had no idea just how dramatic the decade ahead was going to be. The first (nearly) 500 issues of this newspaper coincided with a period of great transformation. Guerrillas went from the bullet to the ballot and emerged as the single largest party, and the most inclusive assembly in our country's history was elected. Nepal became a model for non-violent political change: a case study that proved revolutions don't necessarily have to be bloody. Imagine how much more progress we would have made if there had been a stable political climate and a more accountable government committed to basic needs. Let's hope that in the next decade we will live in less interesting times.

That our coverage will be less obsessed with the political quarrel of the day, and celebrate the ability of individual Nepalis to overcome adversity. We hope that by 2020 we will have made up for lost time.

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