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Two cheers for freedom

Two cheers for freedom

 The mighty two-thirds majority government of KP Oli has often been blamed for trying to curtail the freedom of expression. And rightly so. A set of bills it had introduced in the parliament could have potentially criminalized any factual reporting or even a social media post. A person or organization publishing an ‘offensive material’ would be liable up to Rs 1.5 million in fines, and/or jail for five years. Following widespread protests, these most draconian punishments were removed from the bills. Then, on Feb 20, Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota was forced to resign following the leak of an audio-record that has him asking for Rs 700 million in bribe. Again, unrelenting media pressure played a decisive role in his resignation.

The Oli government is allegedly tone-deaf to public opinion. There is evidence to support this too. Despite public uproar, the Nirmala Panta rape remains mysteriously unresolved. Cartels continue to flourish. Corruption is as entrenched. But the reality is more nuanced. Yes, the government does not look kindly at criticism. As the public opinion slowly turned against it, the government tried to stifle criticism through restrictive laws. But then the media went up in uproar. Members of the civil society hit the streets. The international community spoke out. In time, the government that had enjoyed such widespread support during its formation slowly came to be seen as intolerant and ineffective.

All these incidents suggest that despite the many deficiencies of Nepali democracy, today, it is nigh impossible to take away one democratic right: freedom of speech. People’s freedoms have been steadily expanding since the promulgation of the post- Panchayat constitution in 1990. The 2015 constitution guarantees universal basic freedoms. A belief has steadily taken hold that whatever else may be wrong with Nepal, people have the right to express themselves freely, and no one dares take away that freedom.

Besides the constitutional protection, Nepal now has a robust and varied media landscape, and an indomitable civil society. The involvement of foreign democratic actors also mitigates against curtailment of basic freedoms. Even if the Nepali citizens were yesterday ready to live with some restrictions, youths today won’t tolerate any cap on their in-born rights. Such a refusal to be silenced will help the democratic process that the young federal republic has embarked on.