Nepal | October 23, 2019

Is cyberspace in Nepal actually free for public expression?

Expectation vs Reality: Is Nepali cyberspace public expression friendly?

Ankit Khadgi

KATHMANDU: Pashupati Sharma was clear about his priorities from the very beginning. His song “Malai America yehi… Malai Japan pani yehi… Malai Belayat ni yehi” in ways reflected his preference for residing in Nepal than to settle elsewhere. But little did he know that criticism and freedom of speech in cyberspace is not favoured in Nepal, in contrast to the countries mentioned in his very song.

Around two months ago, Sharma’s song “Lutna Sake Lut” created a massive stir within a few hours of its release. The song was trending on YouTube within 48 hours, mostly maybe because of the word-of-mouth publicity it received after facing threats from the ruling party cadres. Sharma, just as his song was beginning to enjoy popularity, was then compelled to pull down the video from YouTube as certain section of the public found his satirical take on rampant corruption, offensive.

This instance puts forward a vivid picture of how criticism is looked upon in the country and how an individual gets discouraged just for sharing one’s opinion online.

In recent times, the internet has become a hub for public discourse in Nepal. Keyboard warriors, YouTubers, bloggers, people active on social media, and even common users do not leave a chance to criticise or just bring into light the malpractices of the society or the government. Few of them have gained a cult status while some have been condemned for sharing their opinion on social media because of Section 47 of the Electronic Transaction Act, 2008.

Journalists arrested for publishing news

On Monday this week, Arjun Giri, the editor of Tandav Weekly was arrested and detained for publishing news regarding involvement of a local businessman in a land-fraud case. He was charged under Section 47 of ETA.

Likewise, Raju Basnet, the editor of Khojtalash Weekly was arrested by the police and charged under Section 47 last year because of an article published on his website. “I outsourced an article from another paper and published it on my website,” says Basnet who was put behind the bars for sharing an article about how some leaders were misusing a  public property.

Though our constitution guarantees press freedom, Section 47 of the Electronic Transaction Act has been misused time and again to muzzle people who criticise the authorities on digital platforms.

Section 47 of ETA states that any person sharing contents that are contrary to the public decent behaviour and morality, and anyone who spreads hatred among the communities will be liable to fine not exceeding Rs 100,000, or with imprisonment not exceeding five years, or both.

Raju Basnet in an interview with The Himalayan Times. Photo: Ankit Khadgi/THT Online

Basnet who was arrested under Section 47 called his arrest a matter of concern on how criticism is treated in our nation.

Though he was arrested, the court gave him a clean chit. Recalling the days and nights spent in the jail, he believes that the experience made him stronger and that he plans to write more investigative stories in the near future.

In a somewhat similar case, Arjun Thapaliya from Siraha district was arrested for liking a post on Facebook. Thapaliya who used to work for Anukalpa Daily had written an article about a person who was alleged with sexual harassment. His friend had shared the piece on Facebook and just like any other person, he ‘liked’ his friend’s post.

However, that one like on Facebook landed Thapaliya in jail!

Thapaliya shares how exhausting the case was for him. “The case affected me mentally and physically. Since the cases related to ETA were only heard in the Kathmandu District Court, I had to come to the capital from Siraha once every month for hearings,” he said.

Since it was easier to get him arrested through Section 47 of ETA (because of the ambiguous language used in the provision), a like on Facebook resulted in the shutdown of the paper. “It was difficult for me to operate the paper because I had to bear more expenses,” shared Thapaliya, who is currently working at Janata Television.

Proposal of the Info-Tech bill

Though the internet has given a platform for everyone to express opinions, it is given that it is not a space filled only with those with good intentions. There are people who live to harass others, especially women, and opinionated women at that; and there are the manipulative ones who exist on social media only to push their agenda. In such a scenario, the authorities must act cautiously and guide the citizens rather interfering in every move made by the public.

Cybercrimes, pornography, hate speech and defamation cases are rising and affecting internet users. To tackle such problems, the government proposed an information technology bill in the parliament, two months ago.

FILE – Ministers are seen using laptops during a meeting with Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli as the government decided to go paperless, on July 26, 2018. Photo: Bishnu Rimal/Twitter

After the bill was proposed, the media fraternity castigated it for the severe provisions it contained. The media were concerned about how the government — which had promised to be tech-savvy and had gone paperless in the ministerial meetings from July last year — proposed a Draconian bill related to information technology.

The proposed bill that will replace ETA states that anyone can be fined up to Rs 1.5 million and a jail term up to five years or both if they are found posting or propagating objectionable contents on social networking sites.

While talking about this issue, Taranath Dahal, Executive Chair of Freedom Forum expressed that the proposed Information Technology bill is the 2.0 version of Article 47. “It can be used to curtail the basic freedom of expression on the internet and will hamper technological innovation,” said Dahal. Denouncing the ambiguous and vague language used in the provision, Dahal calls for a reform in the bill.

On the other hand, government officials are defending the proposed bill stating that it is intended to regulate technology and make it more productive. According to Birendra Kumar Mishra, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, the proposed bill looks to make the internet a safe place. “We have seen people misusing the internet. It’s the duty of the government to regulate such wrong-doings,” said Mishra.

The very foundation of social media and the internet, however, is building a network accessible to all. People use internet because it provides a space where they can be what they want to be.

Cyberspace, cybercrime and handling misinformation

A screenshot containing icons of social media applications. Photo: THT Online

Bhanubhakta Acharya, a media researcher echoing the idea of making the internet free from intervention, says that the internet is not just a technology today, but more of a foundation for social development.

Acharya expressed that blocking contents on the internet will restrict the social dynamics and stressed that the internet should be politics-free and business interest neutral.

Then the question arises? How to solve the problems related to cybercrime and misinformation?

The answer is simple and plain – Increasing media literacy and making people understand how social media functions. Acharya stresses that the government should make a strong investment in Information Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructures and digitally available public services to make them more people-friendly with the proper use of the internet.

Similarly, Taranath Dahal from Freedom Forum believes that the cybercrimes can be solved more through media literacy than by making stringent laws.

The government must realise that the internet has become the focal platform for not just socialisation, but for learning, sharing and benefiting from each other’s experiences, and thus this space should essentially be free.

Banning any content on social media by enforcing stricter laws may not be the solution. There is a need to to increase focus on media literacy and on institutionalisation of digital safety. The public, on the other hand, should be involved in constructive criticism rather than bringing authorities down for their own self-interest.

The internet by its invention was meant to be freely accessible to all. Let that be reflected in reality.

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