27 June - 3 July 2014 #713

Muzzling the media

An elected government blatantly clamps down on the freedom of expression
Damakant Jayshi
Some disturbing and distressing developments have happened in Nepal in recent times. Two of them are new while the third is something it looks like we are condemned to live with.

One Abdul Rahman from Saptari questioned a news item that claimed law and order had improved in the district. For those not in the know, here’s what Rahman had posted: “What improvement? One ought to pay money get one’s own stolen motorcycle back. That too Rs 50,000.” This is a regular occurrence in bordering districts. However, police arrested him on June 1 under Digital Transactions Act and Rahman had to spend three weeks in detention. That the police went on overdrive over this post throws up several questions.

One, was this only a ham-fisted reaction by Saptari SP Dinesh Amatya who did appear as if he did not know the law under which he booked Abdul Rahman for his Facebook post? Or was it a deliberate ignorance of law?

Second, was this a way the police was trying to assert their authority by harassing a trader from a minority community as is being alleged by some?

Had this been an isolated incident, the police might have had the benefit of the doubt.

It so happens that the police in Siraha had detained one Raju Sah from Bara, again for a post on Facebook. Sah’s comment admittedly was objectionable but what got lost in this episode was that the comment had raised a very valid question about police’s national boss, Home Minister bam Dev Gautam, for violating a traffic rule. Both Rahman and Sah were booked under Digital Transactions Act which in itself is questionable.

Then comes the government’s move to register a controversial Bill on Contempt of Court. Taken together with arrests over Facebook posts and worsening climate across South Asia on free speech, these developments cannot be brushed aside.

“The Bill does not intend to curb press freedom,” Minister for Law, Justice, Constituent Assembly and Parliamentary Affairs, Narahari Acharya, told me. “So far the justices were using discretionary power to decide on contempt of court cases on arbitrary bases, the Bill tries to streamline that.”

However, Federation of Nepalese Journalists (FNJ) chairman Mahendra Bista considers the bill in parliament as retaliation against the media that were critical of the appointment process of justices to the Supreme Court last month.

It goes beyond that. The bill is an attempt to muzzle the press and curb freedom of speech and expression. Today, there’s an attempt to curb comments and criticism; tomorrow you it could very likely include Attorney-General’s office, the CIAA and ultimately the state machinery – the police, the army, the bureaucracy and the Cabinet.

And why the haste in bringing this kind of Bill with far-reaching consequences when the Constituent Assembly is deliberating on the new Constitution?

The government is testing the water over citizens and media would react to curbs on freedom of expression. During his absolute rule since February 2005, then king, Gyanendra Shah, tried to muzzle the press by trying to impose a law on defamation – both the detention and penalty were steep. He failed, because both national and international opposed it fiercely.

If the parliament passes the bill in its present form, it would be the first of the steps towards limiting free speech in the country. This poses a big challenge to FNJ and press freedom advocates. The problem is most FNJ executives members are either political party members or members of Press Chautari and Press Union which, in turn, are affiliated to the CPN-UML and the Nepali Congress – the parties that are currently running affairs of the country.

These incidents also demonstrate the short-sightedness of the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML. They are trying to set a precedent that could be used by another political party with nefarious designs. But why others? It’s the NC and the UML are displaying their intolerant and arrogant attitude to any criticism or opposition. These two parties also forget that they could be adorning the opposition role in future.

This brings me to a third development that made recent headlines – about the questionable acts of Indian spy agency, RAW (Research and Analysis Wing) in Nepal.

The leaders in the government and outside should approach the political leadership in India (including the Opposition) to speak about RAW whose meddling in Nepal has become widespread and growing. Two recent books on Nepal-India relations give ample proof of RAW’s questionable activities in Nepal that go much beyond the agency’s role in safeguarding India’s security interests.

But why blame the agency alone? It would continue to act as a player if there’s no opposition to it. Let alone opposing its shady acts here, we are, instead, discussing, supporting or opposing RAW’s different formulas for federalism and other sensitive issue in Nepal. This is a wrong premise. The discussion should be not on whether the RAW pushed for five states in Madhes or that it lobbied for single east-to-west Madhes province or how many states in the mountains it has been pushing through. This is utterly shameful. This kind of discussions only legitimises the acts of RAW.

The right debate on RAW is whether it has the right at all in doing what it has been doing in Nepal. No one’s questioning safeguarding India’s legitimate security interests or for that matter, of other neighbours.


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