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Prime Minister KP Oli spent 14 years in jail in the 1970s and 1980s for opposing the Panchayat dictatorship. Back then, his party’s main agenda was the restoration of multi-party democracy. He fought for the rights the landless, and built his political career advocating for oppressed peoples.

Oli became minister time and again after multi-party democracy was restored in 1990, and in his second stint as prime minister now, he runs the most powerful government Nepal has seen in the federal republic era.

Today, Oli’s democratic credentials are in tatters. He has centralized power under his control, bringing multiple agencies under the office of the prime minister. He refuses to answer to the parliament. He is creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation where human rights are being undermined and civil society is rapidly shrinking. Journalists and poets are being sent to jail for criticism of the government. Controversial media laws have been introduced with harsh punishments for journalists, and laws with even harsher provisions are in the pipeline to silence critical media. Piece by piece, the Oli led government is taking away people’s freedom.

Shrinking Civil Liberties

Shortly after Oli was elected prime minister in April 2018, his administration declared several public places of Kathmandu including Maitighar Mandala as “no protest areas.” Maitighar Mandala is the space from which the parties had started anti-monarchy protests after the royal coup in 2005. The move was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

But the court order didn’t stop the government from promulgating more regressive laws and curtailing civil liberties. Instead of respecting freedom of movement enshrined in the constitution, the government in April 2019 declared 73 areas of 17 mountainous districts bordering with Tibet as restricted areas. The government gave no clear reasons as to why, but insiders say that the decision was taken in order to please the Chinese worried about “anti-China” activities from Tibetan refugees.

Activists say that  the bills with provisions such as confiscation of media equipment, prison sentences and hefty fines, if passed as law, will kill free press. A matter of particular concern is also the fact that the Media Council has defined even social networking sites as media— which means that any social media users may be put behind bars if they post anything that is critical of the government.

Ever since Nepal became part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the government has increased its maltreatment of Tibetan refugees. The signals Oli government is sending to Nepali press couldn’t be clearer. Recently, it started “investigating” three journalists from the state-run National News Agency for publishing a news piece about Tibetan spiritual leader Dalai Lama’s health condition. 

Weakening human rights

Authorities under the Oli government have revised the National Human Rights Commision Act of 2012. The amended bill has now been forwarded to the House of Representatives. Provisions of the revised bill have not only weakened the rights of the watch body, they have limited its presence only to the central level.

The bill has proposed scrapping 10 regional and sub-regional offices of the NHRC. Once parliament endorses the amendment bill NHRC’s regional and sub-regional offices will lose legal status. Advocates from NHRC have been demanding that the offices not be dissolved, but brought under the purview of state governments in accordance with the three-tier governance system.

NHRC has raised questions about the fact that the revision bill has a provision to give discretionary power to the attorney general, chief legal advisor to the prime minister. If the bill gets endorsement without changes, the prime minister’s chief legal advisor will decide whether to file case against human rights violators or not and the rights body’s role will be that of an “investigation office” under the Office of the Attorney General.

The bill seeks to curtailed financial autonomy of the rights body, proposing that the finance ministry’s approval be mandatory before any human rights investigations are conducted. NHRC officials believe that the rights body will be unable to properly do its job if its independence is compromised.

Cracking down on Media

Oli’s trustee, Gokul Prasad Baskota, is coming up numerous laws one after another to silence the media. Restriction efforts were initiated by the government when the government revised the civil and criminal codes in August 2018, and more provisions are still underway. The codes bar the journalists from recording personal conversations and taking pictures of people without prior consent, even if they are officials in public posts. Violations can lead to journalists being sent to jail for upto three years and paying fines up to Rs. 20,000.

The harshest provisions are in the recently drafted laws—Bill on Mass Communications and Bill to Amend and Integrate Media Council Act. The Mass Communication Bill, which has just been finalized by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, has proposed confiscation of media equipment, fines up to Rs. 10 million, and 15 years imprisonment for media persons found publishing contents “undermining national sovereignty and national integrity.” Since there is no clear definition of what “content undermining national integrity” entails, many suspect that the government could use this provision to take action against any journalist they dislike.

Another bill drafted to revise the existing Press Council Act has proposed the imposition of a Rs. 1 million fine if any media house, publisher, editor or journalist is found publishing news content “tarnishing image of any individuals.” The media bills clearly  contradict provisions in Constitution which state that the government will protect and promote “full freedom of press.”

Read also: Communist government moves to curtail civil liberties

Towards authoritarianism

“By going through recent developments it seems like we are awaiting yet another transition at a time when we were expecting smooth implementation of the Constitution,” says Mohna Ansari, member of National Human Rights Commission, in reference to government attacks on the media and on the human rights body.  “The government seems targeting those organizations which were at the forefront in the fight for democracy few years ago.”

Activists say that  the bills with provisions such as confiscation of media equipment, prison sentences and hefty fines, if passed as law, will kill free press. A matter of particular concern is also the fact that the Media Council has defined even social networking sites as media— which means that any social media users may be put behind bars if they post anything that is critical of the government.

“The way the Medical Council bill has defined cyber platforms or social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter will have an implication in the long run. Common social media users will suffer the most,” says Taranath Dahal, a campaigner advocating for revision of controversial media laws.

The cases of press freedom violations doubled in 2018, and the arrests of journalists Arjun Giri (Pokhara), Raju Basnet (Lalitpur) and Ganesh BK (Bajhang), as well as the  harassment and intimidation of many others have not caused major public outcry. The attempts to pass draconian laws that curtail civil liberties goes against the spirit of democracy, and if the KP Oli government doesn’t change its course, Nepal might once again lose hard won freedoms that took decades of struggle to achieve.

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