Rattled by criticism, Nepal bans TikTokGovernment says popular platform is spreading social disharmony
Unnerved by the rise of rightwing religious groups, Nepal’s coalition cabinet decided Monday to clamp an immediate ban on TikTok, saying the social media platform is spreading social discord.
The popularity of the Chinese social media platform rose dramatically in Nepal since the Covid lockdown, rivalling the reach of Facebook, and political pressure groups had started using it to multiply their reach.
“The cabinet decided to ban TikTok because of its impact on social harmony,” Minister of Communication and Information Technology Rekha Sharma said. “We are overseeing the prompt implementation of the closure.”
Sharma, who is also the government spokesperson, said, however, it could take some time to shut down the platform in a smooth manner.
The announcement was obviously timed for the Tihar holiday period, when the government might have expected criticism of the move to be muted. However, most of the immediate reaction on social media (and also on TikTok itself) was of outrage and ridicule with most commentators seeing it as a sign of a shaky coalition that has been spooked by the rise of the religious right and pro-monarchy forces.
The last media survey conducted by Sharecast Initiative in 2022 showed that 56% of a sample group of Nepalis who were on the Internet said they used TikTok. The platform was launched by the Chinese technology company ByteDance in 2016, and saw a spurt in users in Nepal after the pandemic lockdowns.
“TikTok’s aggressive algorithm makes it highly addictive, and that is the reason for its rapid spread in Nepal,” explains Sharecast Initiative’s Madhu Acharya. “But there has been concern about cultural invasion through its content, and the government appears to be worried about it being used by those opposed to the secular and republican constitution.”
Acharya is preparing a new media survey this year, and extrapolates TikTok’s user base to have now grown to 85-95% to rival Facebook and YouTube.
Many critics of the move have seen the TikTok ban as the first step in what they see as a government design to muzzle freedom of expression and an independent media in Nepal, which is currently the most open society in South Asia.
"TikTok represents freedom of expression. Banning it is to curtain freedom of speech. How will the government be accountable if there is no criticism?,” says Constitutional law expert Bipin Adhikari. “As long as there is no incitement to violence or criminality, or encourage religious strife, the government has no right to ban free expression.”
Opposition parties have been scathing in their criticism of the government move, saying it exposes the fragility of the 8-party coalition government led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal of the Maoist Centre with the Nepali Congress and other smaller parties.
Even some dissident members of the Nepali Congress have taken to social media to voice their opposition to the TikTok ban announcement.
‘If you have a boil on your neck, you don’t chop off your neck,’ wrote Bishwa Prakash Sharma of the Nepali Congress who is with a faction opposed to party president Sher Bahadur Deuba. ‘Identify those who are misusing the platform. But shutting down TikTok is undemocratic.’
Another NC General Secretary Gagan Thapa said the TikTok ban reeked of authoritarianism: "This is a sign that the government wants to clamp down on freedom of expression. The government has taken a wrong step."
A spokesperson of the independent RSP which is also in the opposition said that if there was a problem with TikTok it could be regulated, and an outright ban was overkill.
One immediate concern that the government had appears to be over businessman Durga Prasai who has mounted a vocal campaign on TikTok against mainstream parties for the reinstatement of a Hindu monarchy in Nepal. He had made a call for 100,000 people to rally in Kathmandu on 21 November.
Prasai, who is heavily in debt after having borrowed to start a hospital in eastern Nepal, has also been leading a public campaign to refuse to pay back bank loans. Many see his anti-establishment political stance as a way to magnify his movement.
Nepal is not the first country to ban the app. India imposed a nationwide ban on TikTok in 2020. Along with a looming ban in the US, other countries including Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, and Norway among others have also banned the app on government devices.
While for many of these countries, the issue seems to be the Chinese ownership and user data security, the Nepal government has cited social harmony as the main reason for the move.
The ban closely follows the recently introduced ‘Directive on the Operation of Social Networking 2023’ which says that social media platforms operating in Nepal now have to establish offices in the country. It also has a list of 19 things users are not allowed to do on social media including creating and engaging through fake IDs, posting media or text that spreads animosity against any community, caste, gender, religion, indulging in hate speech and defaming others.
To be sure, internationally as well as in Nepal, Tiktok has become a breeding ground for hate speech. There have been studies on how TikTok is being used to spread racist, sexist and homophobic content.
There are instances in Nepali Tiktoksphere where clips of individual users who have made questionable comments around certain communities have gone viral starting a thread of spat between the communities. Some have also indulged in morally questionable behaviour including a recent case of a female CPN Maoist Centre cadre exposing herself during a TikTok live. It has also emerged as a platform for online gambling, and the app’s rising popularity also means that it has become a medium for spreading fake news, misinformation and disinformation. But it is difficult to say the same does not happen or has not previously happened on other social media apps.
Instead of regulating what technology a person uses or how they choose to use it, critics say a more nuanced approach like addressing specific issues and promoting digital literacy is required. A more creative way would be to utilise TikTok itself to tackle the extremist ideologies in collaboration with the social media platform and foster dialogue both on and offline.
Even when developing and enforcing legal frameworks, it is important to ensure that these are in line with international human rights standards and do not infringe upon or restrict freedom of expression.
Says advocate Baburam Aryal of the Internet Governance Institute, "Today it is TikTok, tomorrow it could be Kantipur, the next day it could be Onlinekhabar, there is a danger that all media will be muzzled. This is how authoritarianism begins."