In the past four weeks, the Government of Nepal (GoN) has taken a slew of sweeping measures to contain the spread of the COVID-19. While some of these measures – suspension of travel, curtailment of social interaction, escalation of surveillance – counter the constitutional provisions, the majority of the population is following these directives responsibly. And, why not? In the face of emergency, such surges in government scrutiny and limitation on civil liberties are deemed to be justified in exchange of public safety.
But the question here is, what if these surveillance mechanisms are not introduced in good faith? And what if they stick around longer than necessary?
As countries across the world take severe actions to address the pandemic, some governments have adopted extreme measures. The unlimited emergency power granted to the Hungarian Prime Minister (PM) to rule for an indefinite period, the postponement of the corruption trial of the Israeli PM, and the public order by the Philippine President to shoot lockdown violators are few such instances. Alongside, Singapore, China, Israel, South Korea, among many have mobilized mass surveillance tools to control the crisis.
Meanwhile, recent moves by the GoN indicate that the country may venture into a fairly similar trajectory. The recent fiasco wherein the developer of Kathmandupress.com – an online news portal – accessed the backend and deleted the article upon the pressure mounted by the PM’s inner circle and the blockade of dozens of media channels in the name of monitoring point out that the government interference is limiting press freedom. In an unexpected quick order, the controversial ordinance passed by the PM that relaxes the process to legally split a political party seems to serve the government interest. In a similar vein, the news of heightened police brutality, the alleged corruption of the government in the procurement of medical kits and the violation of the supreme court orders to arrange transportation for citizens stranded in various parts of the country are a few examples of countless more that defy the principles of democracy.
While some of these debates may be legitimate during the raging pandemic, there needs to be a guarantee that these restrictions are short-lived as likelihood of power grabs cannot be disregarded. As of now, there are no sunset clauses to the emergency measures. This absence means that the government can decide whether the current curtailment of rights and illegitimate expansion of power can last until another month, year or perhaps even longer. So, one must not be complacent and turn a blind eye to the series of events that may result in the abuse of power and infringement of civil liberties.
And more so, one must not have to choose between liberty and safety; because both are our fundamental rights!