Nepal and the Information Technology Bill: Tradeoffs to protect “national unity”

Photo Credit: Bijay chaurasia / CC BY-SA

Despite the advances made in Nepali press freedom following the chaos of the Maoist Civil War, recent developments in the Nepali parliament have raised serious questions about the sustainability of the press freedom rights granted in the 2015 constitution.

In 2018, the parliament passed a landmark law on privacy and libel that prescribed very strict punishment for those found guilty. Under this law, people suspected of breaching confidentiality of a person could be detained for 40 days without trial. 

More specifically, in the name of protecting individual privacy, this law prohibited actions such as recording of people without permission, releasing private documents (such as tax returns) without consent, and “disrespecting” someone directly or in the form of satire. 

In a small country where nepotism and corruption run wild, these laws seriously hamper the ability of journalists to question and investigate officials. Furthermore, though the section on protecting individuals from “disrespect” was intended to prevent discrimination and discord between Nepal’s diverse ethnic, religious, and cultural groups, its implementation has been marred in controversy. 

Just days after the penal code was put into law, a man from Kathmandu was arrested for “disrespect” when he posted on Facebook a superimposed picture of the Prime Minister, Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli (K. P Oli), on the body of a monkey. 

Since the implementation of the new penal code, a series of media restrictions have passed in the parliament hidden behind the veneer of protecting “national unity.”

Notable among them have been the Advertisement Regulation Bill, which gave power to the government-led Advertisement Board to ban all advertisements seeming to inhibit Nepal’s “sovereignty”, and the upcoming Nepal Media Council Bill, which aims to create a series of “media ethics” code overseen by the government-controlled Media Council that journalists should adhere to. 

The Nepal Media Council Bill is currently going through amendments in the parliament; however, the fact that it was introduced in the first place is indicative of the government’s apathy towards the press.

Though there is a massive outcry against these laws in the country, for many, the desire to protect “national unity” is understandable. As a small nation nestled between two great powers—India and China—the Nepali public is increasingly suspicious of anyone seen to be a foreign agent. 

Indian news media, in particular, have come under fire recently for their reporting of Nepali affairs. Just last month, after the Indian news network Zee Channel broadcasted a salacious 15-minute clip making unfounded claims about romantic links between the Prime Minister K.P Oli, and Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, private Nepali cable operators came together to announce that they will no longer be broadcasting Indian News Channels in Nepal.

In such a climate, to combat the global rise in “fake news” and protect “national unity.” the government is introducing the new Information Technology Bill, which aims to regulate all social networks—such as Facebook and Whatsapp—operating in Nepal. 

Under this bill, all social networking services will have to register with the Department of Information Technology, and any content online seen to be attacking “national unity”, promoting bullying and harassment will be banned. 

According to the government, this law was inspired by the European Union’s new internet regulations, and aims to protect Nepali data from big tech firms. This attempt by a small country to hold big tech, such as google, accountable is well-meaning, but is suspected of inviting the opportunity of misuse and misinterpretation that could seriously harm freedom of expression in the country.

Online journalists in particular will be vulnerable to this bill that also stipulates a jail term of 5 years or a fine of 1.5 million Rupees (approximately USD 12,500 or 12 times the average Nepali income) for people found guilty of defamation and harassment online. Given proper circumstances, in the future, administrations can misuse the powers to silence online critics and control conversations. 

The bill is currently being debated in the parliament and is likely to be amended heavily, though the proliferation of misinformation during the pandemic has bolstered the government’s argument on the need for online culpability. 

What will happen to this bill as it passes the two houses of parliament is yet to be seen. However, the specific geopolitical forces surrounding Nepal make it an interesting country to watch, but the growing trend of repression raises an important question to the citizens: how much freedom should a country sacrifice for national unity?