EDITORIAL: Heed the call

The ways of the government are starting to become autocratic, and they are eroding the gains made after the 1990 uprising

The Oli government’s intimidating tactics to subdue freedom of expression through a series of laws and deny justice to the victims of the decade-long conflict under one pretext or the other might require a volte-face. The government did not yield as long as the Nepalis were protesting, but now that international rights bodies are starting to voice concern about attempts by the government to deny the people their hard-earned rights, it would be in its interest to heed the call. The New York-based Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2020, made public on Wednesday, has come down heavily on the government for its role to ‘stifle critical voices and protect those allegedly responsible for past war crimes’. The year 2019 was a critical year for journalists, who fought tooth and nail to keep Nepal’s press freedom as the government, basking in its near two-thirds majority, brought one restrictive bill after another in the Parliament. Three bills in particular affected the press negatively – namely the Media Council Bill, the Advertisement Regulation Bill that makes publishers accountable for the advertisement content, and the recently endorsed Information Technology Bill.

The IT bill was endorsed by the Parliamentary Development and Technology Committee with majority vote without holding wider consultations with the stakeholders and despite strong reservations from the opposition, the Nepali Congress. The bill proposes severe penalty for offence against the state, computer hacking and cyber bullying. But it is vague on what ‘cyber bullying’ and ‘offence against the state’ stand for, and the terms could be grossly misinterpreted by the authorities to stifle freedom of expression. As for the Media Council Bill, what it does is try to bring the press council further under government control, although it is in dire need of reform. The bill is aimed at silencing the media by slapping heavy fines on media outlets, editors and journalists if they are found ‘damaging someone’s reputation’. The free media in Nepal has never been establishment-friendly, often annoying it to the extent possible. Hence, the new bill’s provisions are aimed at punishing the press under the veil of regulating it. The Federation of Nepali Journalists has submitted a number of proposed amendments.

Press freedom apart, the denial of justice to the victims of the conflict-era abuses is also of concern to Human Rights Watch. The conflict victims have been demanding amendment to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Act so as to give it more teeth to criminalise the serious abuses committed both by the state and the Maoist rebels and prevent any amnesty to the rights violators. The government should not be seen as trying to protect the perpetrators of rights violations. There are other injustices that the government needs to look into seriously, such as the growing cases of rape in the country, which have been pointed out in the report. The ways of the government are starting to become autocratic, and are starting to erode the gains that have been made on freedom of expression and human rights since the 1990 uprising, all under the façade of democracy. This does no one any good.

Attacks on FDI

Frequent attacks on the firms and projects having majority share of foreign direct investment (FDI) is a serious issue the government should not take lightly. The government’s attempts to attract more FDI in infrastructure development will erode if such deliberate attacks continue unabated. Most of the attacks on those firms are said to be carried out by the outlawed Netra Bikram Chand-led Communist Party of Nepal.

It is the duty of the government to provide adequate security to their investment, people working on the project sites and equipment. The attacks on Ncell towers and field offices of Upper Karnali and Arun III Hydropower Projects, both of which are being built with FDI, are clear instances that the government has done too little to curb such senseless acts. Persons involved in attacking the FDI investment should be dealt with strictly. At the same time, the local people and elected officials at the local levels should also cooperate with the government to discourage such acts from taking place, which  jeopardise the investment climate. The attacks on the FDI projects will not only put a damper on the FDI climate, but will also cause a huge loss to the projects under construction.