The parliamentary panel should have held wider consultations with the stakeholders before endorsing it with majority vote
Democracy will die in the absence of freedom of expression or opinion. This notion holds true in an emerging democracy like Nepal, where the people had to sacrifice their lives for decades for democracy and freedom of speech. Considering the importance of freedom of speech, the 1990 Constitution had also guaranteed the freedom of speech by clearly saying no press shall be seized simply for publishing any material or nobody shall be prosecuted for raising voices against the government or authorities. The same provision has also been incorporated in the new constitution, guaranteeing the right to speech, either through print or electronic media, which has gained momentum, thanks to rapid growth of information technology. Numerous online outlets are operating across the country, enjoying the freedom of speech fully guaranteed by the constitution. Although some of the contents in some media outlets are not up to the minimum standard and do not follow media ethics while criticising the powers that be, their right to expression cannot be curtailed in the guise of disciplining them. Let the public decide whether the contents carried by various media outlets are worth believing. The public will disown them outright if they are not trustworthy.
However, instead of putting trust in the public, the government is hell bent on controlling the free flow of information the people rightly deserve. The parliamentary Development and Technology Committee on Sunday endorsed the Information Technology Bill with majority vote despite strong reservation by the main opposition, the Nepali Congress. If the bill is passed as it is by the full House of the Federal Parliament, it will work like the Sword of Damocles hanging over everybody’s head opposed to the people in power. The bill has proposed severe penalty for offence against the state, computer hacking and cyber bullying. The bill has a provision of a fine not exceeding Rs 1.5 million or a jail term not exceeding five years, or both, for posting content on social networking sites that pose a threat to the country’s sovereignty, security, unity or harmony. The panel has also proposed imposing a fine of up to Rs 50,000 or six-month jail term, or both, on those found guilty of cyber bullying.
The panel has brought about some changes in the original bill on cyber bullying though it is also very harsh. The original bill, tabled by the government, had proposed punishing a person found guilty of cyber bullying with a fine not exceeding Rs 1 million or a jail term not exceeding five years, or both. But it increased the jail term from one year to three years for those found guilty of deleting or interfering with information stored in somebody’s computer. But the bill has failed to define what constitutes ‘cyber bullying’ and ‘offence against the state’. These vague terms can be grossly misused or misinterpreted by the authorities concerned. The lawmakers from the ruling parties should have held wider consultations with the stakeholders and the public before endorsing it, whose sole objective seems to be to control the social networking sites that are highly critical of the establishment. No bill should be passed in haste that may call for regret in leisure.
Pay the farmers
Will the government give a hearing to the plight of the cane farmers who have not been paid by the sugar mills? Since their protests in the provinces for months have fallen on deaf ears, they are now in the capital, hoping the government will listen to them and swing into action. The crushing season is about to start, but the farmers have not been paid for last year’s produce, some not even for the past few years. The different sugar mills owe the farmers a whopping Rs 1.5 billion in unsettled payments. The farmers have taken to cane farming by taking loans from the banks, and inability to get payments in time pushes them into a cycle of debt.
How can industry flourish in the country when producers of raw materials, namely farm produce, are given short shrift by the entrepreneurs and the government alike? Unlike the entrepreneurs, the farmers are not in a position to hobnob with those who enjoy power. Should the cane farmers decide to opt for a more lucrative crop, it could prove costly for the government as Nepal already imports billions of rupees worth of sugar annually. Perhaps, it is time the government rapped the mill owners before things get out of hand.
A version of this article appears in print on December 31, 2019 of The Himalayan Times.