-Dikchya Raut & Deepa Adhikari
“Every breath you take, Every move you make,
Every bond you break, Every step you take,
I will be watching you.”
The above lyric is from a love song dedicated by Romeo to his lover. However, the meaning of the song fits perfectly to define the surveillance and censorship environment the government of Nepal seems to be trying to promote by passing Information Technology (IT) Bill into law.
Arresting for writing in social media platforms, forcing artists to delete their songs from the internet and filing court cases against comedians are some of the missiles launched by the authorities to curtail free speech in recent times. These trends suggest that the government authorities are determined to curtail freedom of expression in online and offline platforms. With the promulgation of regressive and restrictive laws one after another, the situation is getting worse.
Freedom of expression is a universal human right. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) have recognized it as such. Nepal is a party to these treaties. Our constitution has also enshrined the right to expression as a fundamental human right.
The right to impart ideas is the most obvious aspect of freedom of expression. It serves a larger purpose. It enables people to obtain information, surf the internet, participate in public debate and undertake journalistic and academic research. Freedom of expression does not only protect the accepted ideas but also those that offend, shock or disturb the state. This right even allows a person to advocate for or defend the songs by Samir Ghising, Vten, and admire Titian’s infamous nude paintings. These are the basic elements of an open-minded, tolerant and democratic society.
But IT Bill tells us, no you have to like what we like. Approved by the Development and Technology Committee of House of Representatives, the Bill will be executed if the House of Representatives and National Assembly approve it with majority. The idea to have an IT Bill is ideal. It will be the first dedicated law in Nepal to regulate internet behaviors and cyber crime activities. But some of the contents it has are against the right to free speech, the right guaranteed by the constitution.
First, the Bill requires the citizens to only use social networks approved by the Department of Information in Nepal. It further states that the state can authorize the unregistered social network to quit whenever and however they want. The major problem with this provision is that it vaguely defines the term “social networking” as though to expand its jurisdiction to international social sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Viber. Unfortunately, such sites, because of their internal regulations and nature of the business, won’t register themselves in each country they function. This implies that the government authority, then, will have the right to suspend these sites as per their convenience. Most internet users in Nepal use Facebook. From posting selfies to sharing pictures of the vacation, to debating the relevance of beauty pageants to expressing dissatisfaction on mismanagement of public funds to appreciating or criticizing the politicians, Nepalis use Facebook to express their views and opinions. The IT Bill says even this right can be curtailed.
If this Bill passes, journalism will be the first casualty. The Bill has proposed to impose six months of imprisonment or fine of up to Rs 50,000 for cyber bullying. It might seem right but it threatens journalism. Journalists are the watchdog of the society. They have to report about every wrongdoing. Their report against wrongdoing can be interpreted as insulting or demeaning the authority. And only for this reason, a journalist can be prosecuted. Currently, most of the journalists are penalized under Electronic Transaction Act (ETA). IT Act will supersede it. As many as 38 journalists have already been arrested under cyber crime for writing news in their online media outlet in 2019.
The IT Bill should have been progressive enough to curb the regressive provisions of Electronic Transaction Act (2008) which incorporated vague terminologies to unnecessarily prosecute the accused. On the contrary, IT Bill criminalizes multiple forms of expression. It will act as a weapon to kill the Nepalis’ right to hold critical opinion as well as journalist’s right to write about government’s misconduct. We can only hope that House of Representatives will not endorse this faulty Bill.
Raut is Legal Officer and Adhikari is Media Monitoring and Evaluation Officer at Freedom Forum.