EDITORIAL: Allow dissent

Silencing public voice weakens democracy; govt must understand democracy and dissent go together

The government has said its decision to designate seven places of Kathmandu, six places of Lalitpur and one place of Bhaktapur as “public programmes and protest zones” would come into effect from July 17. This will mean protests in Maitighar Mandala will not be allowed. Similarly, the government is also preparing to declare prohibitory zones in all 77 districts. Minister for Home Affairs Ram Bahadur Thapa has argued that the government move is aimed at “ensuring public security and maintaining law and order”. There, however, is something sinister about the government actions. The government on Saturday arrested a group of people protesting against the government move of declaring Maitighar Mandala a prohibitory zone. This gives us a sense that the incumbent government, the most powerful in the last two and a half decades with a two-thirds majority in Parliament, is becoming intolerant of public voices and criticism. Such actions by the people’s representatives are increasingly becoming a cause for concern.

Dissent is essence of democracy. The constitution we have today has guaranteed freedom of speech. Article 17 (2) of the constitution under “Right to freedom” says: “Every citizen shall have the freedom of opinion and expression and freedom to assemble peacefully.” There is no doubt that any activity that could incite violence or disturb social and religious harmony or could pose threat to national integrity must be dealt with sternly. But to manage this, the government can always enact laws accordingly. The way the government is showing intolerance towards anything that is not to its liking and seems bent on acting tough on protests only strengthens the suspicion whether this government is heading towards authoritarianism.  The elected leaders must realise that without dissent and protest, we would not have democracy today.

In recent days we have come across some incidents that do not bode well for democracy. A minister’s decision to shut down a television talk show for asking tough questions or the government’s National Integrity Policy aimed at “regulating” non-government organisations are some of the examples that show the elected officials’ intolerant attitude towards dissent. In a democracy, NGOs can provide a platform to citizens and civil society to present their dissent in an informed manner. And there is home minister’s vow to act tough against dissenters. These are some alarming signs. Disagreement, difference, dissent and debate set the ground for democracy to flourish. The elected representatives must rethink its policies before implementing them. Of late, the government’s entire focus has been on economic prosperity, but no government, however powerful it is, should make the mistake of undermining economic and political freedom of the societies. For a democracy to thrive, it must survive dissent. Any attempt to rule with an iron fist, silence public views and curb the freedom to criticise and protest can be counterproductive. Those who are in power today, we believe, know it very well. The government must allow dissent and promote debate. Democracy and dissent go together.

Disaster response

This year’s monsoon started on time. But it has become active just now. With the monsoon becoming active all over the country, the National Emergency Operations Centre under the Ministry of Home Affairs (MoHA) has requested all federal ministries, provincial ministries, local levels and district administrations to coordinate with one another for effective preparedness and rapid response. The Ministry of Health and Population has been asked to remain standby with medical teams, equipment and enough stock of medicines while the Ministry of Physical Infrastructure and Transport has been told to be ready with heavy equipment to clear roadblocks.

The government’s disaster preparedness has always been very slow and traditional. MoHA lacks scientific database based on which the settlements that are highly prone to landslides and floods can be alerted in advance or shifted to safer areas. The local levels must possess the adequate stock of medicines, makeshift materials and trained human resources so that disaster victims can get a quick response from the concerned agencies. Trained human resources can play very important role in the time of emergency.