KATHMANDU, April 27: The recent arrest of former secretary Bhim Upadhyay by the police on the charge of cybercrime has been largely perceived as the government's deliberate attempt to stifle critical voices.
Upadhyay, who retired from the government service last year, was taken into custody after he criticized Prime Minister KP Oli, cabinet ministers and the ruling Nepal Communist Party through his social media posts.
The Cyber Bureau of Nepal Police arrested him from his residence in Kusunti, Lalitpur, on Wednesday “following several complaints against him”, according to the Bureau chief SSP Nabinda Aryal.
On Sunday, the District Attorney Office, Kathmandu, registered a case against Upadhyay at the District Court, Kathmandu, “for breaching the Electronic Transaction Act”.
According to Ananda Shrestha, registrar at the court, the District Attorney Office has sought a five-year jail term for the former secretary.
Upadhyay’s arrest is a case in point. Several persons have been arrested for using the photos of political leaders, including Prime Minister Oli, to troll people on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook.
Human rights activists say that sharing thoughts or opinions through social media posts comes under the freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution and the government has no right to censor or regulate them.
The government has been taking action against the people arrested in this fashion as per the Electronic Transaction Act.
Upadhyay's arrest comes two weeks after he accused the incumbent health secretary Yadav Koirala of indulging in corruption in the purchase of medical equipment. Upadhyay and Koirala had exchanged heated jabs on Twitter on the issue of anomalies in the purchase of medical equipment. Both of them had accused each other of receiving bribes.
A week ago Upadhyay wrote on Facebook that Prime Minister Oli who recently underwent a kidney transplant should have a brain transplant as well.
In the charge-sheet filed against him, police have accused him of defaming the government. The court has permitted the police to keep him in custody for five days.
According to the Cyber Bureau, at least 20 persons have been arrested so far for passing negative comments on President Bidya Devi Bhandari and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli through social media posts. Likewise, in the past 10 months, 93 persons have been arrested for cybercrime. Of them, 15 have been sent to jail.
"The government can't arrest somebody for just posting something critical to the government on social media. It clearly breaches one's right to freedom of expression," advocate Saroj Giri said.
Giri opined that the recent arrest seems to be the government's revenge against the people for their critical comments against the government. "In democratic countries like Nepal, authorities can't suppress the voice of the people that are critical of the ruling party or the government," Giri added.
Freedom Forum, an NGO working for the promotion of freedom of expression (FoE), has shown concerns over the arrest of former secretary Upadhyay.
“It is worrying that the state is misusing its resources to silence FoE practitioners. Such resources should have instead been used to help the needy during this challenging time," reads a press release issued by the organization.
The NGO also strongly expressed its dissatisfaction against the state for setting a bad precedent that is “tyrannical” in nature.