Nepal has press freedom, but no freedom after press

Pranesh Gautam's arrest sent a message that in Nepal you can express your views as long as someone does not disagree

Pranesh Gautam of meme Nepal

Earlier this month, vlogger Pranesh Gautam uploaded a tongue-in-cheek review of the movie, Bir Bikram 2 which matched his stand-up sensibilities. It was loud, brash, irreverent.

On the basis a complaint from the film’s producer director Milan Chams, police arrested Gautam on Friday and he has been languishing in a jail cell for the past four days. His crime: trying to be funny on the Internet.

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The video review followed the regular trope of any satire on YouTube – Nostalgia critic, Kanan Gill, Angry Joe show – nitpicky, brazen and with absurdist humour, all hallmarks of success for a video review. Pranesh Gautam must have hoped that the review would get him his publishing channel Meme Nepal, the elusive virality content creators seek. It got him in jail.

Gautam forgot one critical part of the equation: You can no longer speak your mind in Nepal. Maybe you can, as long as you do not offend or disagree with anyone. What are the limits of satire? No one knows.

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What Milan Chams is doing is emblematic of how little our society understands right to free expression. He is trying to undermine a right that is fair and constitutional just because he did not like the messaging.

Free speech is a two way street, it protects both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’. To ensure the right things are said we must also provide the stage for the bad. Subjective censorship is a slippery slope. Once we begin silencing opinion just because we do not agree with it, there is no end to it.

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Obviously, hate speech, obscenity, incitement to violence, and the whole legal list of things not protected by free speech do exist. But at its core, we all have the freedom to express ourselves, no matter how poorly or eloquently. It is a freedom that sees the best and worst of it exercised on the Internet, and there has been an increasingly worrying trend to limit speech under this administration.

The proposed IT Bill, amendments to the Penal Code and the new Media Council Bill all show a creeping and steady infringement on freedom of expression in Nepal. There is an attempt to stifle dissent and alternative opinion with jail time and fines under the guise of discipline and ‘sensitivity’.

A report by Freedom Forum found 104 incidents of violations in 2018 alone with multiple journalists and editors being booked under the Electronic Transactions Act – a law created for monitoring online banking transactions. Currently, the IT bill allows the government to sentence the accused to 5 years in jail and up to Rs150,000 fine for ‘improper’ social media posts. What constitutes ‘improper’ is so broad, anyone can be hauled in.

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Pranesh Gautam’s review was booked as a ‘cybercrime’ and under the Electronic Transactions Act. While there is a laundry list of grievances, Milan Cham’s team has publicly stated that it seeks to “teach a lesson to such miscreants”. It even demanded that the Meme Nepal brand be scrapped before any negotiation could occur.

This was hardly a cybercrime, more likely it was a Orwellian Thought Crime. And how about Chams’ supporters openly abusing Meme Nepal and Gautam by saying ‘M**ji harulai thikka paryo’. Should these Internet posts not be subjected to the same scrutiny?

No one sets out to make a bad movie. As a content-maker myself, I get it. To find a little known, part-time comedian ripping your movie to shreds when it is so early in its release can be maddening and heartbreaking. But what is also true is that artists must have thick skins, not everyone will like what we make, and audiences can be pretty ruthless.

If Gautam’s review in Meme Nepal did pan Bir Bikram 2 and it threatened Nepal’s entire film industry as has been claimed, it just exposes just how weak must be an industry that an absurdist review can wreck it.

How we react to Gautam’s unlawful incarceration matters because of the precedent it sets. To allow this case to be ruled in favour of Chams’ team would basically send a message that in Nepal you can express your views as long as someone does not disagree.

The review was not perfect, but that is not reason to silence the reviewer. The explicit language and the over-the-top display was not my cup of tea, but was Pranesh Gatuam entitled to make it? Absolutely.

The Human Rights Measurement Initiative recently released a report showing declining Freedom of Opinion and Expression in Nepal (3.9 out of 10) and called it ‘very concerning’. Pranesh was arrested the very same day.

Shashank Shrestha is a content creator and co-founder of Kathaharu and KookyDunk.

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