Countries the world over, including Nepal, are opting for lockdowns to contain the spread of novel coronavirus (Covid-19), often with considerable public support. Many governments have assumed emergency powers to do so. This in turn has fuelled fears that rulers with autocratic bent could use the pandemic to cement their rule and silence critics.
For instance, to contain the contagion, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban has assumed extraordinary powers to rule by decree. The decree, among other things, allows the prime minister the power to control the media. Rights groups warn the country could be headed towards a full-blown dictatorship.
“Around the world, measures to contain the coronavirus are threatening liberal values and basic principles of democracy,” says political analyst Shreekrishna Aniruddh Gautam. “The other tendencies in evidence during the pandemic are further cementing of nationalist sentiments and emboldening of anti-globalization forces.”
In Nepal, some government decisions have already raised eyebrows. It decided to let Nepal Army import essential materials to fight coronavirus, after a private company assigned the duty failed to do so. Why do we need an elected government, many question, if all vital government duties are to be passed on to the army?
Even top leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party are unhappy with lack of consultations in dealing with Covid-19 and with the prevalence of security forces on vital national issues, which, they reckon, could threaten civilian supremacy. Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is yet to summon a joint meeting of ruling and opposition leaders, which belies his assertion that the anti-corona measures of the federal government have broad political support.
The government has also stalled the parliament’s winter session, which is known as the bills session. In the absence of parliamentary scrutiny, it can now issue decrees to get things done. The next session of parliament is the budget session. As corona is an urgent issue, the government can summon a special session of parliament before that. And if big gatherings are a problem, the parliament can meet virtually, as is being done in some other countries. The Oli government has thus far refrained from such innovative measures.
Tara Nath Dahal, executive director of Freedom Forum, a think-tank on civil, political and media rights, says he has repeatedly drawn the attention of the Speaker of the federal lower house Agni Sapkota that there should be continuous and consistent parliamentary oversight over government functioning during the pandemic.
“Now, the country is operating on the basis of government decrees. There is also a question-mark over the constitutional validity of the lockdown, even though it maybe justified from a public health perspective,” Dahal says. “It is vital that the parliament continues to function, especially during a national crisis.”
The judiciary can help with check and balance but its functioning too is limited. Currently, all courts (Supreme, High and District) are hearing only urgent cases. Similarly, the National Human Rights Commission, a constitutional rights watchdog, has been almost comatose during the coronavirus lockdown.
In such a void, it is easy for the government to try to accumulate power and suppress dissent, according to Dahal.
Take the recent fiasco with the online news portal Kathmandupress.com. The portal’s developer remotely accessed the website’s backend and deleted an article critical of the prime minister’s advisors. Reportedly, the PM’s inner circle had put pressure on the IT company to delete the article, even though this has not been independently verified.
In another development, Press Council Nepal has blocked over a dozen online news portals on the ground that they were publishing fake news and misleading the public. Though some of those portals did indeed post news of questionable nature, observers say the press council does not have a right to block them, which sets a dangerous precedent.
In his address to the country on April 7, PM Oli doubled down on critics, arguing that some people were trying to mischievously defame the government even though it was doing a good job in controlling the spread of coronavirus.
Freedom House, a US-based global think-tank, has called on governments across the world to protect civil, political and media rights during and after the pandemic. “Criminal penalties for distributing false information are disproportionate and prone to arbitrary application and abuse. Instead, governments should counter any falsehoods by delivering clear, accurate, and up-to-date information,” advises the think-tank in its guidelines.
But over the past two years, there have been multiple efforts to curtail media freedom in Nepal. Three laws—Media Council Bill, Information Technology Act, and Special Services Act—have provisions that curtail media freedom and civil rights.
In the name of controlling the pandemic, experts fear governments could also snoop on people’s private information. “China reportedly contained the coronavirus with the help of its overarching surveillance mechanisms,” says Gautam, the political analyst. “One upshot of such sweeping surveillance could be spying on and preying upon the government’s adversaries. This will be a big threat to democracy.”