The government, which has been receiving widespread criticisms over a number of flawed bills that it introduced in the parliament in recent months, has been heavily criticized again over Information Technology (IT) Bill which has been endorsed by the house committee recently, despite reservations from the members of opposition party, and which awaits endorsement from the parliament. Troublingly, the government does not seem to be in a mood to take in criticisms and calls for amendment coming out from various sections in good faith. Instead, it seems bent on passing this bill into a law by using majority votes in the parliament. Communications and Information Technology Minister and the government spokesperson Gokul Baskota has been arrogantly defending the bill and presenting it as a cure-all to all malpractices in the internet realm. The IT Bill, when it becomes a law, could curtail freedom of expression and allow the government to misuse it to punish its critics and opponents, which is why it must be opposed by all sides.
Some of the clauses of the bill are highly objectionable. Section 91 of the bill has a provision that all domestic and foreign social media companies operating in Nepal should get registered in Nepal within a period specified by the government. It does not exactly specify during which period. And there is no guarantee that social media companies such as Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Viber, WhatsApp, Instagram and Tiktok will abide by this condition given rather small size of market here in Nepal. In that case, the government can prohibit these companies to provide service in Nepal, which means these social media sites will be out of access for Nepali citizens, thus infringing on their right to freedom of expression. The government seems clueless as to what it will do if the companies disagree to abide by this rule. Besides, there is a little chance that they will agree to be registered under the government of Nepal because they have not done so in many other countries. Second objectionable provision is related to the authority given to the government to direct social media operator to immediately remove or censor any ‘offensive’ social media post. The government can also direct social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube to remove posts of certain individuals without securing a court order. The individuals can be subjected to hefty fines and jail sentences. Third objectionable provision is related to five years jail and Rs 1.5 million fine for anyone publishing offensive posts including mocking, engaging in pranks or threatening someone. That means a person can be jailed and fined for publishing the posts the government deems mock or threaten someone. When our criminal code already has provisions which allow the government authorities to sue anyone who is guilty of defamation and character assassination, we wonder why such stringent punishment has to be imposed again.
There is no denying that internet platforms have to be regulated. But the way the government has included stringent punishment for minor mistakes the citizens might make while using social media posts shows that the government is more bent on stifling voices of dissent rather than regulating social media sphere. We wonder how the democratically elected government can envision the laws that could potentially shut down the social media sites. Social media platforms have served people as a means to voice their concerns—positive, critical and negative—against the government and even hold the government officials to account. As a matter of fact, social media, despite is downsides, have become the source of information, news and views for people. Even the thought of shutting them down reeks of authoritarianism. The government withdrew controversial Guthi Bill and is apparently revising it in consultation with the concerned stakeholders. It should do the same with IT Bill and revise the objectionable terms in consultation with the experts. The lawmakers whom the people have entrusted to safeguard their democratic rights guaranteed by the constitution should not give stamp of approval to the bill that will, in the long run, curtail the rights of very people who elected them in the first place.