Protecting free speech on Nepal’s cybersphere


Social media has given Nepali users unprecedented access to knowledge, opinion and entertainment.

But that power is being increasingly misused, by trolling those with a different opinion (especially women), cyber-bullying, assuming false identity, stealing private information and floating wild conspiracy theories.

As Nepal’s mobile phone usage grows to 92%, and more than half of those people have smart phones with Internet, many on social media wear a cloak of anonymity even as they share each aspect of their lives with countless others.

To be sure, Nepalis can now contact relatives and friends in the diaspora on video chats, and they have the world at their finger tips. But a sharp increase in online abuse has prompted calls for greater media literacy.

As elsewhere, Nepal’s social web has in recent times been weaponised against those who post dissenting views.

In May, actress Barsha Raut posted a video clip on social media calling for diplomatic talks between India and Nepal to solve the Lipulekh dispute. She called out journalists from both countries who used patriotism as an excuse to incite hatred.

This should not have been controversial, because patriotism and love of country should not be a reason to spread abuse. But in these polarised times, the veil of anonymity accorded by the net gives people the freedom to threaten and intimidate anyone, especially if they are women like Barsha Raut.

The virtual mob that descended upon Raut branded her a traitor, and that was just the most polite adjective used. The backlash was so overwhelming that a disheartened Raut was forced to clarify her stance on the issue and tearfully apologise on social media.

Similar posts by male celebrities, journalists and commentators have not elicited such vicious response. Why the selective outrage?

In June, actress and film director Deepa Shree Niraula expressed doubts in a tv interview about whether actor Rajesh Hamal should be labeled a 'superstar'. The audience immediately took to the comment section on YouTube to post virulent abuse at her, even threatening to rape and kill her.

Social media has given insecure, hidden people the power to express exaggerated outrage, magnifying any incident out of proportion through the algorithm of the ‘like’ and ‘share’ button that has turned the social web into an echo chamber of incremental radicalisation.

Who appoints people legends, superstars, national poets, or icons and gives them the label of ‘superstar’? This argument is not new to public discourse in Nepal. As such, anyone has a right to express views on whether or not they think someone is a superstar of Nepali cinema. Such discourse is an example of a functioning democracy and a healthy democratic debate.

But why aren't we as a society tolerant and respectful of other people's views?

The very existence of social media is a result of a free and fair democracy. But the digital crowd touting freedom of expression to attack and abuse those with different points of view undermines the very democratic values upon which social media was created in the first place.

In September, Facebook users in Nepal formed a group 'We Are Rapists' as public anger has grown against the epidemic of rape and domestic violence in Nepal during the pandemic. The Cybercrime Bureau finally arrested those behind the group, who said they did as a prank.

According to political analyst and thinker Hari Sharma, accountability has disappeared somewhere along the way as the practice of freedom of expression evolved from traditional media to new media, setting a dangerous precedent. Sharma notes that recent intolerance towards differing opinions has proven that the public is uninformed about social awareness, freedom, and individual rights.

"Technology is merely a tool," he says. "How we express our opinions on social media mirrors how we live in society at present. It is not realistic to blame intolerance entirely on digital technology.”

To be sure, such abuse is not limited to Nepal. Individuals and communities across the world and South Asia have been subject to widespread hate and abuse online. In October, Indian cricket player MS Dhoni's 5-year-old daughter was threatened with rape in 'retaliation' to what people thought was a disappointing performance from Dhoni in this year's chapter of the Indian Premier League (IPL). Police arrested the 16-year-old in Gujarat who made the threat.

Here at home, singer and vlogger Samriddhi Rai was viciously trolled for being critical of beauty contests for women and the selection process and criteria.

The use of freedom of expression as an excuse to spread hate and incite violence has spread a culture of fear in society. Senior advocate Radheshyam Adhikari notes that while every individual is free to express agreement or disagreement of opinion, no one has the right to attack and abuse anyone else for agreeing or disagreeing with a certain point of view.

"We must respect any dissenting opinion that as long as it does not advocate violence and hatred," he says.

But what if the responses to someone’s opinion spreads violence and hate, should that not be curbed? Indeed, the backlash to any opinion on social media is now so pervasive that it has has had the effect of dampening free expression. Many netizens have just stopped posting anything, or have quit social media platforms altogether.

The truth is that we veer between extremes at this stage of digital democracy. The public is quick to idolise one figure and demonise another. We tend to look at things in black and white, as one or the other. This environment is emblematic of the problems that the next generation will it participates in a digital democracy.

We seem to be at a crossroads at a time when we should use social media to come together and form new ideas rooted in empathy and understanding. We have the power to make someone 'viral'. We use our own opinions as a valid reason to justify and excuse inexcusable behaviour. We are quick to boycott and 'cancel', without looking at the context, those who we believe have offended our sensibilities.

Are we ourselves a part of the cyber society that is dismantling democracy? Are we becoming more digital and less democratic? Is the new public sphere being left to trollers to inhabit?

Says women's rights activist Saru Joshi: "The culture of treating differing opinions with disrespect is prevalent in our families, educational institutions, and workplaces. This culture of silence means many pressing social issues are swept to the sidelines on social media. But staying silent will weaken the democratic process.”

The solution is better media literacy, enforcement of rules on cyber crime, and for people who want the Internet decontaminated to speak out. And there should be legal remedies against those who abuse the freedom of the net.

Says Shiva Gaunle of the Centre for Investigative Journalism: “There is a clear line between criticism and hate. While criticism is a valid way of participating in the democratic process, spreading hatred is anti-social and anti-democratic.”