Of late, stories of alleged corruption by government authorities have made rounds on various media platforms. However instead of investigating such cases, the government has tried to shut critical voices, showing its intolerance towards voices of dissent.
Take the instance of the article by KathmanduPress alleging the corruption of high-profile personnel in the procurement of medical supplies and equipment from China – if the IT Bill would have been approved, the government could deem the article illegal and take down its content, as per its discretion.
The Information Technology Management Bill was tabled in the House of Representatives for further discussions after being endorsed by the Development and Technology Committee on January 2.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT SAYS
The Bill will replace the existing Electronic Transaction Act (ETA) and has been touted by the government as the most comprehensive and clear bill to address the long-held concerns around IT management.
WHAT IT BILL ACTUALLY IS
The wide-scope nature and the vague language used in the provisions could give broad powers to authorities to block social media platforms if they are not registered in Nepal, threatening to curtail freedom of speech online as well as increase surveillance of personal data and also have more red tape for internet-based companies.
The Bill has prescribed a fine up to Rs1.5 million and/or five years’ imprisonment for individuals who post online contents to “sexually harass, bully or defame others”.
According to Amnesty International, several provisions in the IT Bill do not meet international human rights law and standards. For example, section 94 of the bill vaguely criminalizes people who post content on social media if it is deemed to be against “national unity, self-respect, national interest, relationship between federal units”.
Other provisions of the Bill, which are open to wide interpretation, could also be abused to stifle critical opinions, satire, public dialogue, and public commentary. For example, the bill prohibits “teasing”, “deceiving”, “demotivating”, and “demeaning”.
Section 88 of the Bill also restricts the publishing of such content through use of any electronic medium, which could include news sites, blogs and even emails.
Section 115 of the Bill envisions an “Information Technology Court” in each of the seven provinces around the country, with the mandate to deal with all issues under the bill, including criminal liability.
As the Bill authorizes the government to appoint the members of the court bypassing judicial council, this poses serious concerns on the influence of the executive over these courts, the independence of the judiciary and fair trails guarantee in such courts.
Under international human rights law, states are permitted to limit the right to freedom of expression, but these limitations must be set forth in law in a precise manner, and be necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim, as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nepal is a party.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT IS DOING
The government has already been using the Electronic Transaction Act 2006 to arrest and take action against people based on their social media posts deemed “improper” by the authorities.
It has also been used to arbitrarily detain journalists for publishing stories which criticized the government or others who posted critical comments online.
In April, 2019 journalist Arjun Giri was charged under the Act for reporting on financial fraud.
In June, 2019 comedian Pranesh Gautam was arrested for posting a satirical film review on YouTube.
In October, 2019 singers DurgeshThapa and Samir Ghishing, aka VTEN were arrested for the content of their songs.
According to the Cybercrime cell at Nepal Police, 106 cases were filed in Kathmandu Valley in the last three years for posts on social media.