A new bill filed by the Nepal parliament is worrying journalists and media practitioners as it threatens press freedom and free speech. Posts on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter deemed offensive could carry jail and fine punishments, a move seen by many as a crackdown on dissent by the government.
The information technology bill, introduced at the end of December, imposes fines of up to 1.5m rupees (about US$13,000) and jail term up to 5 years for anyone posting content that promote hate crime or ridicule. It would apply to all social networking sites.
Last month the ruling Nepal Communist party (NCP) also tabled a “special service bill” that would allow the National Investigation Department to collect information without a warrant or court order.
The information technology bill is expected to be debated by MPs this month. Critics fear it will pass with ease because the NCP holds a majority in parliament.
The Electronic Transaction Act (ETA), passed in 2008 to fight cybercrime, has already been used to restrict online comment. Critics say the new law will further curtail free speech.
Arjun Giri, an editor at the online news portal Tandav News, was detained for four days last April under the ETA after writing a story alleging fraud against a powerful local businessman that was shared on Facebook.
“I got a shocking call after a few days from the local police. Police took me into custody, citing that I violated the Electronic Transaction Act,” Giri said.
Other journalists and activists raised the alarm over his detention. “If media and journalists did not raise their voices for me I would have been in jail now,” he said. “This government is misusing its power and becoming a dictator.”
More recently the rapper Samir Ghising, also known as VTEN, was jailed for a week under the act for “antisocial, vulgar and derogatory language, and spreading the wrong message in society in his songs”.
Comedian Pranesh Gautam was jailed for nine days in June for critiquing a film on his YouTube channel.
According to Freedom Forum, 38 journalists were arrested, detained or questioned by police in 2019. Taranath Dahal, the forum’s director, said: “The situation is sinister. If the proposed bill becomes law, the media and journalist[s]will be the most targeted.
“We are living in the digital era and we will not be allowed to give our opinions, or speak and express our feelings, due to fear of a heavy fine and jail punishment, which will promote self-censorship. That means there will be no public debate.
“If we don’t debate there is no democracy.” (Source: The Guardian)