Now that all three festivals are over, it is time to remind ourselves of where we left off before the holidays. Lest we forget, in late September we saw a series of crackdowns on freedom of expression that had a dampening effect, especially on Internet content.
Elected demagogues worldwide learn fast: they have discovered that there is no need to kill journalists anymore — it is much more effective to kill journalism.
By destroying the credibility of the media, citizens are no longer able to tell the difference between truths and lies, allowing rulers to get on (and get away) with wrongdoing. In this post-truth, fake news universe, the social web allows instantaneous spread of falsehood, rumours and manipulated information. This creates an environment for self-censorship, and the silencing of independent voices.
One would have thought that with its landslide victory in the 2017 elections, the ruling Nepal Communist Party would be able to perform, deliver services and upgrade infrastructure. The media would have automatically heaped praises. But since it has not been able to deliver on its promises, the party with the thickest majority in Nepal’s democratic history has the thinnest skin.
Gagging the press in installments, Sewa Bhattarai
Nepal has press freedom, but no freedom after press, Shashank Gautam
In the past year, the NCP has taken incremental steps to suppress the press. There has not been any sudden, swift crackdown — the pressure has mounted in instalments. The intention seems to be to take our freedoms away bit by bit so that we won’t even notice when they are all gone — rather like the traditional Chinese practice of torture and execution known as lingchi, death by a thousand cuts.
The story so far:
- Nepal’s new penal code last year criminalised the use of images deemed derogatory (section 295), slapped hefty fines and jail terms for recording conversations (section 293) and announced strict punishment for sending, receiving or using online data (section 298). It even banned Photoshopped images for the purpose of satire.
- Parliament introduced a bill to prohibit journalists from publishing personal information of public officials, ostensibly to protect officials’ privacy.
- Editors of mainstream newspapers were unceremoniously summoned to the Press Council for intimidating interrogations.
- Journalists at the RSS news agency were questioned for filing a story on the Dalai Lama being discharged from hospital in New Delhi while President Bidya Devi Bhandari was on a visit to Beijing.
- The Ministry of Communication and Information Technology is backing a draconian Media Council Bill through Parliament, which would criminalise speech on vague grounds.
- In June, vlogger Pranesh Gautam was jailed by police for five days for an irreverent review of a new Nepali movie.
- Satire singer Pashupati Sharma was threatened by ruling party toughies to take down a music video ridiculing the culture of corruption in high places.
- A person was tracked down and arrested earlier this year for poking fun at the Prime Minister on Facebook.
- The Information Technology Act can sentence people for 5 years in jail and levy a fine of up to Rs150,000 for ‘improper’ social media posts. What constitutes ‘improper’ is so broad that anyone can be hauled in on any pretext.
- Gyanendra Shahi, who posted a video on Facebook of Tourism Minister Yogesh Bhattarai being berated by passengers for delaying a flight in Nepalganj, was so badly beaten up he had to be hospitalised.
- Last month, rapper VTen was arrested for a music video deemed obscene.
After each of these arrests social media exploded with virulent criticism of the government. Ordinary citizens poured scorn on the state for ‘jailing rappers but letting rapists to go free’.
IFJ asks Nepal to revoke media gag
Nepal undermining free expression: HRW
Politicians seem confident they can handle criticism in the legacy media, but are afraid of the free-for-all on the Internet. The high profile arrests for posting on social media are meant to warn the public, and any infraction is so loosely defined that just about anyone can be hauled in for anything.
The government’s intolerance for criticism seems to be a reflection of worries about Prime Minister Oli’s health, which has led to jostling for succession within the NCP. The former UML component of the NCP, which at least paid lip service to liberal democracy, is being subsumed by more authoritarian comrades in the party with erstwhile Maoist credentials.
The emperor does not like it when it is pointed out that he is naked. Power does not like it when you speak truth to it. So, the knee-jerk reaction is to harm the messenger. The threat to freedom of expression today is not from despots, but elected leaders who have co-opted the legislature, judiciary and the security apparatus.
The crackdowns in Nepal are not as bad as in the rest of the region. But that is not saying much, and it is hardly a consolation. Our goal must be to strengthen the four pillars of democracy, separating their powers and fortifying them to be more transparent and accountable.
Suppressed, Om Astha Rai
Nepal PM stirs hornet’s nest, Kunda Dixit