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Spooked by its own shadow

Spooked by its own shadow

A defining characteristic of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP)-led government is its intolerance of criticism. Those in the federal government, which enjoys a near two-thirds majority in the parliament, apparently believe all their critics are enemies who need to be silenced. This comes from a deep-seated fear of having to confront and deal with their many shortcomings. So it is intent on stifling dissent and getting the media to strictly adhere to its ad hoc limits.

A twin set of bills now in the federal legislature would make it a crime to post any content critical of the federal government on social media. Just for expressing their opinion online, a person may be fined between 0.5-1.5 million rupees or be jailed for 5-15 years. Given the vague incriminating terminologies like ‘defamation’ and ‘bullying’, just about any critical post online could be deemed problematic. As troubling are the provisions that allow the National Investigation Department, the state intelligence agency, to snoop on a person or organization under its investigation, including by looking at their phone and online conversations.

There has been no justifiable explanation for why more of such draconian laws are needed, when existing laws are enough to monitor and investigate suspected activities online. As controversially, another bill aimed at curtailing press freedom had been introduced earlier in the year.

So are we headed toward a totalitarian state? We cannot draw that conclusion yet. In India, despite the BJP regime’s best efforts to buy influence and cow the media, dissenting voices are still strong and continue to make the government jittery. These days, even one-party China struggles to keep its citizens away from ‘unwanted’ online content. Besides, Nepal’s democratic space has been continuously expanding since the 1990 political change, and even an all-powerful communist government will struggle to take the country back to the days of the Panchayat surveillance state. Nor is a communist dictatorship possible here.

But if recent measures are not enough to completely reverse Nepal’s democratic gains, they could act as roadblocks in the country’s progress toward a fully democratic state. If, tomorrow, the Nepali Congress gets to lead the government, it would also have every incentive to continue these troublesome laws to stifle criticism against it and mute opposition voices. The NCP is taking the country down a dangerous path. A vigorous defense of free speech from across the social and political spectra is the need of the hour.