Nepal: Information Technology Bill threatens freedom of expression
- IT Bill provides heavy prison sentences and hefty fines against those who freely express their opinion through electronic medium
Nepal’s parliament must amend the Information Technology Bill (IT Bill) to bring into line with international standards and ensure that the law is not used to criminalize the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression, Amnesty International said today.
Provoking widespread criticism from Nepal’s civil society, the proposed IT Bill would empower the government to arbitrarily censor content online, including on social media, and punish offenders with up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of 1.5 million Nepali rupees (approximately 13,000 USD).
The IT Bill is one of three proposed pieces of legislation that use vague and overbroad clauses to unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression. The bills have been proposed against the backdrop of intensifying attacks on free expression in the country.
“Nepal was once envied by people across the region for its openness towards critical views and opinions. That reputation is now at risk as the government continues to crack down on what people say, write and even sing. The IT Bill and all other legislation must be amended and brought into line with international law and standards to guarantee people’s right to freedom of expression,” said Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International.
In 2019, laws like the Electronic Transactions Act 2006 were used to arbitrarily detain journalists for publishing stories which criticized the government or others who posted critical comments online. In April, journalist Arjun Giri was charged under the Act for reporting on financial fraud. In June, comedian Pranesh Gautam was arrested for posting a satirical film review on YouTube. In October, musical artists Durgesh Thapa and Samir Ghishing popularly known as VTEN, were arrested for the content of their songs.
Nepal was once envied by people across the region for its openness towards critical views and opinions. That reputation is now at risk as the government continues to crack down on what people say, write and even sing
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 IT Bill, which are open to very 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.
“If passed in its current form, the provisions in the IT Bill further risk creating a chilling effect, and will ultimately give rise to censorship and self-censorship online where people will no longer be able to share their feelings or debate ideas freely and without fear of repression,” said Biraj Patnaik.
In 2019, the government of Nepal proposed a series of bills in parliament with provisions criminalizing acts that should be protected under the right to freedom of expression, and give the authorities excessive powers to impose harsh sentences for vaguely worded offences.
In February 2019, the Information Technology Bill was proposed in the house of representatives.
In May 2019, the government registered the Media Council Bill in the upper house of parliament with provisions that would muzzle freedom of expression through printed and online media. Under Section 18, the Council will have the power to impose fines of up to one million rupees (approximately 9,000 USD) if a journalist is found guilty of libel or defamation, which is also punishable under the criminal code. According to international human rights standards, defamation should be treated as a matter for civil litigation, not criminal.
The Mass Communication Bill, also drafted in 2019, includes provision of even harsher sentencing and fines to journalists with up to 15 years of imprisonment if found guilty of publishing or broadcasting contents deemed to be against sovereignty, territorial integrity and national unity, as per section 59 of the draft bill.