In Nepal, one of the most fundamental ideals of democracy – Freedom of Expression – was already facing a hammer of draconian laws and rules prior to the Covid-19 lock-down. The criminal code introduced in 2018 curtailed press freedom by hamstringing investigative journalism and imposing restrictions on criticisms and satires of the government. Likewise, Information Technology Bill permitted the government to ban social media platforms and imprison or impose penalties on individuals for posting ‘improper’ contents. There were 104 incidents that violated press freedom in the previous year alone. Additionally, the moral policing of the government by arresting popular singers and comedians for promoting ‘anti-social values’ threatened the civil society space.
It was evident from the growing digital surveillance, physical attacks to reporters, prosecution against public figures and death threats, that leaders in Nepal were revolting against free speech. The Covid-19 lockdown has indeed amplified the issue, as it has emboldened and empowered the government to suppress free speech and intensify its authoritarianism.
Since the start of the lockdown from 24th of March, numerous incidents have occurred that obstinately points to the fact that the right to free speech of Nepalese citizens is in grave danger.
In early April, an article that pointed out the involvement of the defense minister and Prime Minister’s advisor’s son in procuring over-priced medical equipment was removed from an online news portal – Kathmandu Press. On April 22, a former government secretary Bhim Upadhyay was arrested, under the Electronic Transaction Act, for defaming the current government by posting a satirical comment on his twitter handle. On April 27, Radio Nepal, under the pressure of the government, removed an interview of the former Prime Minister that contained criticism against the current Prime Minister.
It is despairing to be able to draw parallels between the current Nepal and a dystopian state presented by George Orwell in his novel ‘1984’.
The novel revolves around an ordinary man ‘Winston Smith’ who lives in a totalitarian state, where the ruling party often referred to as the ‘Big Brother’ controls everything, including thoughts, making love and expression of individuality. Every inhabitant in the country is strictly observed by the state authorities through telescreens and are repetitively reminded by displaying the slogan “Big Brother is Watching You!”.
Winston Smith works in the Ministry of Truth, which in reality assumes responsibilities like falsification of historical facts and promoting new language that fits the party doctrine. His job is to remove any traces of history that are not in favor of the ruling party and rewrite it by illustrating the party as eternally right and powerful. His workplace also implements a newly invented language, called Newspeak, which does not contain any words that might result in political rebellion.
Winston loathes the oppressive behavior of the ruling party and illegally keeps a diary in which he writes his thoughts. Thoughts against the ruling party is the most heinous crime in the state. Sadly, he is not able to conceal himself from the state surveillance and is tricked by a thought police and a party spy to commit an open revolt – reading the manifesto of the opposing party.
Winston is arrested and after brutal punishments and brainwashing, he succumbs to the state and becomes a devoted follower of the Big Brother.
Nepal is headed towards similar fate, where the government is bound to exercise immense powers with such impunity. And it is important to prevent it from happening.
Exercising our right to free speech might be the best way to do so.
Authoritarians do not sustain in societies that have freedom of speech and that is why they resent it.
Societies benefit immensely when people start expressing their thoughts, views and ideas. It not just helps keep the society informed but also limits the power of government to act arbitrarily. When the majority realizes the faultiness in the governments’ way of doing things, it involuntarily reduces the power of the oppressors. It eliminates the misconception that the governments have regarding them being the ultimate representatives of the people and that there are only few people who oppose their ways. Increased public discourses, where people lend voices to people who do not have any, are in fact the cheapest method to bring reforms in any society.
Let us not succumb to be illegitimately persecuted for expressing our opinions.