4-10 July 2014 #714

Contempt of freedom

You don’t need a dictator to roll back democracy and shackle the media, elected demagogues are doing just fine.

If dictators and demagogues jail journalists and detain democracy activists, it doesn't surprise anyone. In Nepal’s history, we saw the feudal Rana regime ruling with an iron fist, we experienced the intolerance of three decades of absolute Panchayat monarchy, and the authoritarian streak of King Gyanendra who tried to turn the clock back after 2001.

And when they were elected to power in 2008, the Maoists showed their true colour by physically attacking media outlets critical of them. The extreme left and the extreme right are both hardwired to suppress the press, so they were just acting accordingly.

But it is when a political party which swears by core values of democracy starts trying to muzzle the media, however, that we have to start being worried. Whatever you may say about the feckless NC and UML governments of the 1990s, they at least believed in an open society.

The NC’s Narhari Acharya, who has a rather sweeping portfolio as the Minister of Law, Justice, Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Affairs, has taken a personal interest in pushing through a Contempt of Court Bill in parliament. Under Clause 4, the proposed bill seeks to define contempt of court as any report or expression that casts aspersion, defames, undermines the public’s trust, or spreads lies about the court or judges.

Minister Acharya’s haste and timing in trying to ram this bill through parliament, when there are so many other more urgent matters to attend to, is telling. It follows the controversy and uproar over the appointment of eight new justices to the Supreme Court in April which he vigorously backed.

As it turned out, six of those eight had skeletons rattling loudly in their closets. Some were self-confessed polygamists, others had a record of protecting drug smugglers and criminals.

In the past, the Supreme Court has ruled against the Nepal Medical Council’s decision to restrict the quota for MBBS admissions to a private medical college. Last week, a newly-appointed justice has freed on bail the chairman of Nepal Share Markets and Finance who swindled hundreds, while keeping a smaller fish in detention.

If the bill is passed, the media would not be able to investigate and publish or broadcast similar miscarriages of justice, or question corrupt and immoral appointments to the Supreme Court. The bill is oppressive and isn’t just an attack on press freedom, but on the citizen’s right to know.

Minister Acharya has said he is just trying to “define and clarify what represents contempt”. But in one fell swoop, he squandered the respect earned during his political career as a champion of democracy. By trying to pass a bill to exact revenge on the media which opposed his appointment of justices to the Supreme Court, he has exposed a dangerous draconian streak.

He is not alone. Powerful Home Minister and caretaker Prime Minister Bam Dev Gautam has come to Acharya’s rescue to puzzlingly label all those opposed to the contempt bill “authoritarians”. In fact, it is Gautam who has been showing just how thin skinned he is about criticism by ordering his police to crackdown on those who comment on social networking sites.

Abed El Rahman, a businessman from Saptari, found out the hard way that in the New Nepal, posting an innocent comment on Facebook can get you into serious trouble. He was jailed for 20 days after saying that he had to pay Rs 50,000 to retrieve his stolen motorcycle. The district’s corrupt police force felt alluded to and decided to teach him a lesson. Far from reining in his police, Gautam egged them on.

We live in interesting times: six months after 80 per cent of us turned out to vote a new government to power, rulers we elected are turning Nepal into a police state. It just proves that you don’t need a dictator to roll back democracy and shackle the media, elected demagogues are doing just fine.

With friends like these, Nepal’s democracy doesn’t need an enemy.

Read also:

Muzzling the media, Damakant Jayshi

When graft is a given, Anurag Acharya

A teetering stability, Rubeena Mahato

Justifying the justices, Binita Dahal

Media bashing, CK Lal

Unceremonial monarchy, Sudhindra Sharma

Total control, Narayan Khadka

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