Punished for fact-checking in Nepal

Photo: MySansar

“What is this that you have posted?”

“Who gave you the right to put this up?”

“You think you can just write these things?”

Those were the kind of questions fired at me in an intimidating tone by Deputy Superintendent Pradin Tamrakar at the Cyber Bureau

I told him politely to first take a look at my write-up in Factcheck Nepal about the increasing prevalence of fake news about the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project.   

But the officer would not listen. He kept on badgering me: “Why run a news portal without registering it? Who gave you the right to post such content?”

"The Constitution,” I told him, this time more bluntly.

He called me “conceited” and threatened to detain me. Realising that I would not be able to get through him, I started making calls on my mobile.

He then tried to snatch my phone and confiscate it. He said I was not allowed to make a call.

“Why not?” I asked, and managed to hold on to my phone. I made my calls anyway. 

Read more: Beware of fake news, Bhrikuti Rai

The day before this interlude, I had received a call from the Bureau asking me to pay them a visit to discuss a matter. I had recently written a blog post, about the increase in fake news and presumed they wanted to talk about it.  

They told me to get to the Forensic Division by 4PM. But being on medication, I dozed off and was not able to make it.

The next morning I got a call again from the Bureau, this time they told me to meet Umesh Shah at the Forensic Division. I went over, and Shah took me to DSP Pradin Tamrakar who had a printout of my blog article about fake news on his desk.

Next thing I know I am being threatened with detention, and accused of spreading disinformation. What an irony: the writer of an article about fake news is being detained for propagating fake news.

I tried telling him to at least read the article first before accusing me, and then determine if I was propagating falsehoods, or trying to make people aware of it. But it was like talking to a stone wall.

The whole process was bizarre. Shouldn’t the interrogation officer at least be apprised of the case he is dealing with? Is threatening an innocent person and accusing them groundlessly how the Cyber Bureau conducts business? 

Photo: MySansar

It was at this point that I started to lose my composure. I forgot everything I had learned at the Vipassana Camp about controlling anger. I was not even allowed to explain that I was the one trying to expose false news

By coincidence, I had been studying cases where the courts had scrapped groundless investigations that the police had fled. They are almost always after people sharing fake content online instead of catching real culprits responsible for creating them.

But not even in my worst nightmare had I imagined that a DSP at an institution dedicated to fighting cybercrime and protecting people would have such a low IQ. He had not even read the headline of my piece, let alone the article before wrongly accusing me.

How does one rationalise this? They try to arrest a person actively helping to control disinformation but are unconcerned about those that are actually enticing violence with inflamed posts on YouTube and Facebook.

You can only reason with people who are willing to understand. How does one go about explaining to these educated fools the difference between a news portal and a blog, and what fact-checking entails?

Read more: Nepal undermining free expression: HRW, Nepali Times

The police could have very well booked me under the Electronic Transactions Act, even though I would have been proven innocent in the courts. But as long as they get to harass us, what do they care? If not that, they could have sentenced me to 25 days for misbehaving.

Fortunately, a few phone calls did the trick, and I was spared from being locked up.  

In the meantime, another DSP Kailash Rai, made an entry. He seemed to have a better understanding of the matter, and tried to placate me while also defending the Bureau. He told me things got out of hand because both the parties involved were “getting worked up”.

His quiet reasoning made me realise that I was in fact quite angry. I needed to cool down and ended up apologising to Pradin Tamrakar. But he was not sorry. He still has not apologised.

Maybe it was his ego, but he once again told me I should have notified the Bureau what I was writing about. Seriously? So I am supposed to ask the police what I am writing about before I even start writing? The Bureau should have used my piece to catch real culprits. This was taking ‘blaming the messenger’ to new heights of absurdity.  

Then Tamrakar started preaching to me about having my blog registered. I tried telling him that a blog is not a portal, and does not need to be registered. He did not understand the difference.

Photo: MySansar

But what is really bothering me is this perception that as long as your business is registered you can avoid being penalised even if you have committed a crime. But you are held accountable even if you are innocent if you are not registered. It is like it is ok to kill someone as long as your gun is licensed.

When I asked the Bureau why they had decided to investigate me, they gave vague answers so I checked my file again. There was no mention of it being reported, but signatures prompting ‘action’.

It seems a top official at the Bureau had read my blog article and made a copy ordering his employees to look into people responsible for increasing fake news. But DSP Tamrakar misunderstood this to mean that it was the writer who needed to be penalised. 

He was probably just trying to follow his superior's order blindly. But even that requires some background. If it is time-consuming to read the entire article, he could have at least read the headline and subhead printed in large bold letters. 

A small suggestion to the Cyber Bureau: I will make my services available to fight cybercrime. But at the very least, employ competent staff. Otherwise, they will discredit the entire police force.

Again, I apologise to DSP Pradin Tamrakar, I have no animosity against you. The only reason I am publicly naming you is with the hope that you do some homework before pursuing future investigations.

We are all eagerly waiting for the real purveyors of fake news and disinformation to be hauled in for questioning. Not people like me who were already exposing them.

Salokya is the editor at NepalFactCheck.org, a joint initiative of the non-profit Center for Media Research Nepal (CMR-Nepal) and the Nepali language blog, MySansar.com.

Read also: The message is the medium, Editorial