Exercise your right to freedom, fight for things you feel you’ve done right, but also reflect on your action because somebody may not approve of your action
In 2002, a promising Nepali actress Shrisha Karki committed suicide because one of the tabloids posted an intimidating picture of her. Despite outrage against the tabloid, the editor got away with an answer, “I never thought she’d actually do this.” Eight years later in 2010, another tabloid, now a national daily, posted explicit screenshots of a private video of another promising actress. It came as a headliner on the front page. Half of the nation went into either gossiping or judging mode, bringing down her emerging career in the Nepali silver screen and leaving her to face a depressing social battle. She rightly fought back hard. Veteran actor Madan Krishna Shrestha recently said in an interview that journalists are the most inhumane of mankind he has seen so far. The reason, a lot of media persons shoved camera lenses at the face of his deceased wife at the funeral.
“A dog bites a man is not a news, a man bites dog is a news,” “Bad publicity is also a publicity”, so said my journalism teacher during my undergrad studies. Having started my career as a journalist over a decade ago, that too an entertainment journalist, I have closely known the trick and trade some in the media fraternity use to pull in all sort of attention.
Gone are the days when voices were suppressed over dictated rules and regimes. Times have changed. People are now more vocal of their rights, are more aware, have better access to communication tools and understand the value of freedom of expression. To cut it short, our voices today is just a click away.
While in the last few months, media houses in Nepal have repeatedly been advocating for the right to exercise freedom of expression, the last week has created more buzz on social media than ever with an arrest of a young comedian over alleged bullying of a film in a said review on a popular social media page.
Pranesh Gautam, a young comedian and vlogger, also one of the admins of the Facebook page MemeNepal, is now known to many for reasons Pranesh may not have imagined himself. He has been put behind the bars for over a week now for commenting via a video post on Nepali feature film Bir Bikram 2.
To put together his plight, Pranesh made a satirical commentary (more of a roast) to criticize some of the actors, he made fun on the filmmakers, mocked the story, criticized the plot and there were some usage of slangs in the video. Responding to his action, the maker/producer of the film Milan Chamling (Chams) Rai sued the vlogger citing defamation to his crew, character-assassination of his team and breaching the cyber law by using abusive language to belittle the movie. Pranesh was detained.
The outrage in the social and even in local media started when the defendant was not allowed to speed up to court proceedings to fight his charges. As a result, the suspect and even his family stated that they were going through mental and psychological breakdown. They feel they’ve been cornered with political and financial influences. The deal as per the rumors is that the plaintiff had committed to take back the case provided the defendant pulls down the video and apologizes to the film crew publicly. Pranesh and his team have already pulled down the controversial video from their YouTube channel and are ready to apologize too. However, the plaintiff says he has now let the law take its course and the young comedian continues to be behind the bars.
In between, the social media is flooded with comments for and against the situation. Most social media users in Kathmandu are raising concerns over freedom of expression and are of the opinion that the plaintiff and the administration are playing foul to ruin a comedian’s career and to muzzle freedom of expression at the cost of personal vendetta.
Nepali Congress leader Gagan Thapa was one of the first to comment on detention of Pranesh. He wrote on his twitter, “Absurdist humour is taken as normal all over the world. It is unfortunate that Pranesh Gautam was charged with cybercrime for a satire video, and it is against freedom of speech. Criticism is the main pillar of democracy, let us protect it.” In no time, Pranesh garnered a large support in social media with the hashtag #freepranesh #freedomofspeech. Kathmandu also had silent rallies to press the administration to free Pranesh.
Several Nepali actors including Reecha Sharma and Keki Adhikari wrote on their Facebook pages that they welcome criticisms on their works, critics are free to point out their flaws, make healthy humor but they should not use abusive language, body-shame and assassinate characters personally. They have also pleaded to free the defendant and let him and all others learn something out of this episode.
Meme Nepal is a Facebook page with over one million followers. MemeNepal has had love-hate relationship with its followers and has often received criticisms for “crossing lines” by body-shaming Nepali beauty queens, actors and actress, vulgarity and abusive content. In the meantime, some find the content of this page as dark humor, parody, just a spoof, witty and funny. Meme Nepal basically is a page made for sarcastic commentaries, roast movies and other art works. On their social media page, there has been a divide among people who’ve enjoyed the contents they share and those who hate it for being “abusive” in language.
Freedom and offense
Should there be freedom of speech? Should there be a healthy space for anybody to criticize anything around the society? Yes. Can somebody find your speech hateful and exercise his/her right to sue against you with legal help? Yes, again. As much as freedom of speech is important, it should come with a consequence too and that is via the right for somebody else to have the space to not approve your opinion and reciprocate against it. So who draws that fine line then, which allows people to respect other’s space of freedom and to fight for their rights? It is the constitution, the legal structures of the state. We have cyber-law in place.
Electronic Transaction Act states: “Whoever publishes or causes to publish, display any material in the electronic form including computer, internet which are prohibited to publish or display by the law in force or which may be contrary to the public mortality or decent behavior or any types of materials which may spread hate or jealousy against anyone or which may jeopardize the harmonious relations subsisting among the peoples of various castes, tribes and communities shall be liable to be punished with a fine of up to one hundred thousand rupees or with imprisonment of up to five years or both.”
Therefore, the case of Pranesh vs Milan Chamling should not have intensified to this point. It was simple. Somebody said something over an internet, and somebody who was being criticized didn’t approve of it and thus filed a case. Legally, both of them were right. The rest fell victim to lengthy drama of power-politics and weak administrative and legal structures.
While people must have the right to say what they feel about freely, to provide constructive criticisms, people as much need the right to oppose it and take legal support to address their concerns. If absence of either or presence of just one of them could result into anarchy in the society, the law should have taken the matter with priority and transparency. If proven with evidences against the allegations, Pranesh should have been given sentence. But since our structure in itself is struggling to find its niche and consistency, justice here is often delayed, denied or forgotten.
Humor and comedy has been a great tool to raise curtains over many of the ills in societies across the world. With growing trend of social media channels, comedians have greatly used humor to question both obvious and not so obvious in the world. From stand-up comedy to dark humor to humor in music, to parody shows, meme and roasts, humor has been widely popular among the youths. This is because humor gives us the darkest realities of our lives served in the most-simplest platter. It also provides us the space to critique and dissect the social norms. Politicians across the world are now found in meme, celebrities are trolled and there are roasts made on people. Nonetheless, there is a fine line between humor and bullying. Racial slurs, sexist remarks, body-shaming, character-assassination, name calling, abusive language doesn’t make everyone’s funny bone tickle. These are times when there will be a large population who’ll react to these comments in not a humorous matter. Therefore, everything comes with a price and a consequence.
The whole controversy of MemeNepal can be taken as an example. While the particular video made on Bir Bikram 2 doesn’t really assassinate characters and doesn’t harm as much as has been alleged, Meme Nepal for long time has been criticized by many youths themselves for trying too hard to make people laugh by means of ridiculing many at the cost of humor. While I hope well for Pranesh and hope his case is looked into with transparency and forgiveness, as well as condemn any act of monetary or political influence to muzzle legal proceedings, this incident leaves us all with another take away.
My take away is you’re never isolated in the society. In a community there are certain moral and social grounds you have to associate with whether or not you like it. Every action has its ripple effects and there are consequences. Exercise your right to freedom, fight for things you feel you’ve done right, but also reflect on your action too because somebody may not approve of your action. Somebody may believe that their choice of freedom of expression is better than yours. There’ll always be chaos between attaining absolute freedom and drawing that thin line. Make people laugh, make people learn, forgive and move on.
The above opinion is entirely of the author’s and doesn’t represent any organization he works for