Nepal undermining free expression: HRW

Nepal should revise its draft laws that erode the right to freedom of expression, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a letter to Prime Minister Oli.

The letter said the drafts criminalise speech on vague grounds, including that it may 'annoy' or 'trouble' people being written about.

The draft laws include the Media Council Bill, Information Technology Bill, and the Mass Communications Bill, which HRW said 'contain numerous loosely defined and draconian measures'.

Content that undermine the nation’s 'self-pride' or damage an individual’s 'image or prestige' would also be punishable with fines and long jail sentences. HRW said provisions controlling online content are also sweeping.

Read also: IFJ asks Nepal to revoke media gag

'Nepal has a proud tradition of public activism, but if these laws are passed in their current form, they will undermine the freedoms that Nepalis fought so hard to achieve,' said HRW's South Asia director Meenakshi Ganguly in the letter. 'After years of conflict and political instability, the laws being passed under Nepal’s new democratic constitution should uphold fundamental freedoms, not set out to curb them.'

Since the Oli government took office in February 2018 at least six journalists have been detained, internet users have been arrested for posting content deemed objectionable.

HRW said the proposed laws, along with problematic provisions in the recently revised Penal Code, create a web of loosely defined offenses that could be interpreted to ban almost any speech or online activity the government objects to.

Citizens have no way of knowing what will be interpreted as illegal speech, and they potentially face multiple prosecutions for similar offenses, as some are also offenses under other laws.

Read also: Gagging the press in installments, Sewa Bhattarai

The draft laws also violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which requires a narrower and clearer definition of objectionable material, of which Nepal is signatory.

The Media Council Bill and the Mass Communications Bill are being debated in Parliament, and HRW says if passed they would force media to compel media to 'comply with government directives and as yet unwritten codes of conduct, or face penalties'.

The Information Technology Bill creates a raft of loosely defined new offenses that could be interpreted to include almost any online activity for journalists and ISPs. The Bill is supposed to replace the 2006 Electronic Transactions Act (ETA), which the current government has abused repeatedly, often to prosecute online journalists reporting on corruption.

'Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and the foundation of a democratic society,' Ganguly said. 'The Nepal government should protect free speech and ensure that any legal restrictions are proportionate, narrowly defined, and consistent with Nepal’s obligations under international law.'

Read also: Nepal has press freedom, but no freedom after press, Shashank Gautam