Minister of Communications and Information Technology Parbat Gurung's announcement that the government will bring new directives to prevent online media and social networking sites from spreading hateful message has worried proponents of free speech.

Executive Director of Freedom Forum Taranath Dahal said that the government's preparation to issue new directives to control media and social networking sites was aimed at curbing freedom of expression. He said there were defamation laws, privacy laws, and cyber laws that were adequate to control objectionable statements and remarks, yet the government was trying to issue new directives with the motive of creating fear in the minds of the public and opponents.

He said the government wanted to discourage opponents from making critical statements against the government and that was bad for democracy. "The government had introduced new Information Technology Bill in the Parliament two years ago, but it could not move the bill ahead as political parties and civil society protested against the bill. Now the government wants to introduce the same restrictive provisions in the new directives," Dahal added.

He said the government had also introduced a penal code three years ago to criminalise defamation, which was against freedom of expression guaranteed by the constitution and civil society members had opposed it back then.

People did not care much about these restrictive provisions three years ago, but when the government misused those provisions to arrest Ramkumari Jhakri, people know how bad these provisions could be for free speech, Dahal said.

Advocate Sunil Pokharel said that existing laws were adequate to deal with defamation and there was no need for issuing new directives to regulate media and social networking sites.

If the government wants to control web domain then it must bring new law and not directives, he added.

Pokharel said the government's use of Section 58 of Muluki Criminal (Code) Act-2017 to arrest Jhakri was a misuse of the legal provision. "The president is well protected and no individual has the power to intimidate the president or force her to do illegal things. If any other state organ tries to intimidate the president, then that could be addressed by Section 58," Pokharel said. He said the president could file a defamation case against Jhakri, but if she wanted to do that, she should have personally filed a defamation case in the court.

In this case, the government wrongly invoked the law to arrest Jhakri, he argued.

Advocate Raju Prasad Chapagai said the government's preparation to control online media and social networking sites was consistent with its attempts to curtail freedom of expression.

"Free speech is the beauty of democracy. Allowing people to express critical views helps the government correct its mistakes and gain legitimacy for its actions,"

Chapagai argued.

"Instead of respecting freedom of expression, the government is trying to curtail it. Such attempts are made only in an autocratic system," he added.

He said the government's intention of curbing freedom of expression was reflected when it introduced Media Council Bill in the Parliament.

A version of this article appears in the print on February 13, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.