Ever since the powerful communist government of KP Sharma Oli took office nearly a year ago, there have been fears that the government could abuse its powers to curtail free speech and stifle press freedom. The communist coalition, which later morphed into the Nepal Communist Party, had come to power on the twin promises of ‘stability’ and ‘prosperity’. While the NCP seems to have ensured the former with its thumping two-thirds majority in the federal parliament, as well as effective control of six of the seven provincial assemblies, it is a long way from achieving the latter.
The Oli government’s performance thus far has been disappointing. The economy is in a shambles. Even as Nepal’s exports dwindle, imports continue to pile up, leading to a whopping Rs 82.32 billion balance of payment deficit in the first five months of the ongoing fiscal. None of the big-ticket infrastructure projects has come through. Melamchi has been left high and dry. Progress on two international airports at Bhairahawa and Pokhara is patchy, while controversy rages over the proposed international air-hub in Nijgadh. Meanwhile, corruption is increasing and impunity is at an all-time high.
But instead of getting its act together, the Oli government seems intent on silencing its critics. The latest manifestation of this is a new bill on advertisement regulation recently tabled in the federal upper house. If it passes, for the first time in Nepal’s democratic history, any deviation from the official advertisement policy will be a criminal offense, punished with up to Rs 500,000 in fines and up to five years in jail, or both. A producer of advertisements that promote gambling or Ponzi schemes will get the maximum sentence. So will the makers of ads deemed a threat to national sovereignty, territorial integrity, nationalism, relations between provinces and to a whole host of other real or imagined national interests. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Information has introduced measures to restrict journalists’ access to inside dope in government agencies.
The government’s intent seems clear enough. While the cheerers of the Oli government in the media will get lucrative ads and every other kind of government support, critical outlets will be endlessly hounded and be deprived of their chief income source. This attempt to kill the messenger smacks of an authoritarian streak. The press fraternity and the civil society should speak as one against this mission creep—before it is too late.
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