KATHMANDU, Jan 8: Sajha Party on Wednesday urged the government to withdraw the controversial Information Technology Bill.
In a press statement, party spokesperson Surya Raj Acharya said that the proposed bill is against the principle and spirit of freedom of expression, separation of powers and democracy enshrined in the constitution. "It is condemnable that the government has not yet withdrawn the bill from the parliament despite public outrage," he said.
The party also accused the government of promoting 'crony capitalism'. "Since coming to power, the government has been showing illiberal attitude by going against the principle of liberal democracy adopted through various democratic struggles," read the statement.
In its statement, SP said that the government has been making efforts to centralize power and control society. "Once the proposed bill is enacted, the government can control social media. Hence, Sajha Party urges the government to immediately withdraw the bill, hold consultation with the experts and table the revised bill. Otherwise, ordinary people, civil society members, opposition parties and media will be forced to take to the street," it said.
A bill, which is on the verge of endorsement by the lower house of parliament, may pave the way for the government to shut down social media sites at any time and under any pretext, according to experts.
The Information Technology Bill, which was approved by a parliamentary committee last month and is awaiting endorsement by the House has proposed that the government can ban the social media sites that are not registered with the Nepali authorities.
Section 91 of the bill has provisioned that all domestic and foreign social media companies operating in Nepal should get registered in Nepal within a period specified by the government. “All social media companies which are operating in the country prior to the commencement of this law should be registered at the (Information and Technology) department within a given period,” reads Section 91 (2) of the bill.
Subsequent section of the bill further reads that the “government shall ban the use of social media which is not registered in the country.”
Stakeholders fear that the provision of the bill could pave the way for the government to shut down social networking sites in the country under any pretext and this will infringe upon the freedom of expression.
“[Foreign] Social media companies will indeed come to register with us, because they have been doing business here. We have not imagined that they would not come,” said Minister for Communication and Information Technology Gokul Baskota.
Once the bill becomes a law, the government may ask social media companies including Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Viber, Whatsapp, Instagram and Tiktok among others to register themselves with the Information Technology Department.
But stakeholders say top social media companies are unlikely to register in Nepal given the small size of the market here.
Asked what the government would do if the companies did not register themselves in Nepal, the minister replied, “Who knows what will happen if the sky falls.”
Section 92 of the bill states that “the department can order a social media operator (company) to immediately remove or censor any social media post that is offensive under the law.” This provision allows the government to direct social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube among others to remove social media posts of certain individuals without securing a court order.
“The bill allows the government to ban social media sites just like the porn sites,” said former president of the Federation of Nepali Journalists Tara Nath Dahal. “It also paves the way for the government to curtail the freedom of expression of citizens through hefty fines and jail sentences.”
Interestingly, the bill has also not defined what is a social media site allowing the government to define the term to its liking.
The IT bill has proposed up to five years jail and Rs 1.5 million fine for anyone publishing offensive social media posts including mocking at someone, engaging in pranks or threatening someone.