Nepal: Civic freedoms at risk with Tik Tok ban, social media directive and targeting of journalists and protesters
The state of civic space in Nepal is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor. Documented violations of fundamental freedoms include arbitrary arrests and the use of excessive force with impunity during protests, as well as the ongoing targeting of journalists, including through harassment, attacks and criminalisation.
In October 2023, the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) Sub-Committee on Accreditation (SCA) retained the ‘A’ status of Nepal’s human rights commission (NHRC). It has faced a potential downgrade due to the legality of appointments of NHRC office bearers (members and its chief) and their work performance. However, the SCA stated the NHRC should take reasonable steps to enhance its effectiveness and independence.
In December 2023, the courts convicted 26 individuals, with 24 of them sentenced to life imprisonment on murder charges. Two other individuals were sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for caste-based discrimination. They had been charged for an attack on a Dalit community in May 2020. Human rights groups saw it as a historic verdict and a welcome step in judicial redress to ensure justice and accountability for the Dalits.
In recent months, the social media app TikTok was arbitrarily banned while the government issued a directive on social media that could impose greater controls and restrictions around the digital space. Intimidation and attacks against journalists persist while protests have been met with arrests, excessive force and even deaths of protesters.
TikTok banned for ‘disrupting social harmony’.
🇳🇵 #Nepal: Various groups urge the government to reconsider the ban on TikTok and find alternative measures to address legitimate concerns without violating the constitutionally protected right to freedom of expression https://t.co/4vZwo8RgM6 @ForumFreedom @bodyanddata— IFEX (@IFEX) November 24, 2023
On 14th November 2023, Nepal banned the popular video-sharing platform TikTok, citing negative effects on the country. Accordingly, the Nepal Telecommunications Authority (NTA) asked all the internet service providers in the country to block this app.
Minister for Communications and Information Technology Rekha Sharma said the decision was made because TikTok was consistently used to share content that “disturbs social harmony and disrupts family structures and social relations”.
More than 1,600 TikTok-related cybercrime cases have been registered over the last four years in Nepal, according to local media reports.
On 16th November 2023, Access Now said it was ‘alarmed by the Government of Nepal’s decision to ban popular social networking application TikTok under the guise of “protecting social harmony.” The group said that the state’s move to bar more than two million people in the country from accessing the video-sharing platform is a gross violation of freedom of expression.
It added that to ban an entire platform like TikTok on vague grounds such as ‘disrupting family structures and social relations’ is not only a disproportionate move by the Nepali authorities, but also an undemocratic one. No single authority, without a check or a balance, has the right to wield online censorship as a tool to restrict and regulate freedom of expression online.
Concerns about new social media directive and bill
In country like Nepal, where the technology is seen as synonymous of development, there are instances of government is finding more ways for surveillance. #InternetAndPrivacy #PoliticallyPrivate #गोपनियताकोगफ— Body & Data (@bodyanddata) February 15, 2021
Article on proposed social media directive:https://t.co/KvhZFRN8jZ
Civil society groups have also raised concerns about a directive on the Operation of Social Networking, also issued in November 2023.
The government released a part of the directive on 10th November 2023. The directive asks all social media companies, including Facebook, X and Instagram to open liaison offices and register with the Ministry of Information and Communication Technology in Nepal within three months. If they fail to do so, they could have to face the same fate as TikTok.
Free speech advocates oppose the government’s attempts to regulate social media through administrative measures and assert that a new law or legal framework enacted by parliament is needed for doing so. Second, they said that the new directive contradicts the Electronic Transactions Act (ETA) on which it is said to be based.
The directive says no one should create fake IDs on social media and share or make comments through such IDs. Likewise, people should not post any text, audio, video or picture that spreads hatred against any gender, community, caste, religion, profession or people from any particular group.
Taranath Dahal, chairman of the Freedom Forum that advocates for freedom of speech and expression, said: “We need a separate law because directive alone cannot regulate social media platforms. So the very basis of the directive is questionable. Parliament should enact a separate law.”
In December 2023, The Asia Internet Coalition wrote a letter to the Minister for Communication and Information Technology and expressed concerns over the directive, as well as potential future moves to ban social media applications. It stated that the government's decision to ban these applications “without properly establishing legal provisions goes against international best practices”. The AIC also suggested that the government initiate a consultative process involving industry stakeholders and civil society organisations to enhance the effectiveness of the directive but also ensure that it aligns with global practices and the principles of a free and open digital environment.
In January 2024, it was reported that the government has proposed a new law to regulate social media platforms. The bill has been drafted with reportedly new provisions as well as provisions from an earlier draft prepared during the tenure of former Communications Minister Gokul Baskota.
On 26th January 2024, Digital Rights Nepal (DRN), in collaboration with 34 allied organizations, submitted a comprehensive critic of the bill. The submission points out various issues, including unnecessary restrictions on freedom of expression and communication, potential violations of fundamental rights, ambiguity in criminal provisions, concerns about privacy rights, inconsistency with the principle of proportionality, a vague definition of serious crime, broad executive powers, and the looming threat of censorship.
Intimidation and attacks against journalists
Journalists in Nepal continue to face various forms of violations for undertaking their work.
An annual media report by Freedom Forum stated that in 2023 there were 52 incidents of press freedom violations in Nepal, where more than 59 journalists including 9 female journalists were directly affected. They include cases of arrest, detention and intimidation. The report notes that there was no response from the state agencies to address impunity relating to crimes against journalists in 2023.
On 1st January 2024, Rashmi Pradhan from Kapuri News was ill-treated while reporting in Sunsari in Koshi Province of Nepal. According to Pradhan, she was reporting on the ongoing preparations for Dharan Day at a public school using her mobile phone. She heard of a public dispute at the school and tried to report on it. However, Dharan Sub metropolitan executive member BIkash Bhati abused her and seized her mobile. Another person named Ratan Limbu also threatened to attack her. She has filed a complaint with the police.
In January 2024, the Editor of IJALAS, Pradeep Pariyar, was threatened for his reporting. According to Freedom Forum, businessman Prakash Shiwakoti spoke abusively and threatened to attack Pariyar during his speech at a public programme on 6th January. Shiwakoti also accused the journalist Pariyar of writing and spreading fake news about him in the media. Pariyar had published two news articles critical of Shiwakoti on the news portal a year ago.
On 6th January 2024, Bijay Rana, the editor of EParinews, was attacked while reporting in Baglung in Gandaki Province of Nepal. Rana was reportedly taking a video of police baton-charging during a festival. According to Freedom Forum, several police personnel beat Rana. They also seized his mobile phone. He suffered bruises and received treatment at the Dhaulagiri hospital.
Police block protesters demanding restoration of monarchy
Nepalese pro-monarchy supporters clash with police during a rally in Kathmandu, Nepal. Nepalese businessman Durga Prasai organized the pro-monarchy protest rally against current Nepal’s Federal Democratic Republic system. 📸 EPA / Narendra Shrestha #Nepal #Monarchy #protest pic.twitter.com/U4TWqLeyqI— EPA Images (@EPA_Images) November 23, 2023
Riot police used batons and tear gas to halt tens of thousands of supporters of Nepal’s former king who attempted to march to the centre of the capital in November 2023 to demand the restoration of the monarchy and the nation's former status as a Hindu state.
According to VOA, the authorities had banned protests in key areas of the city prior to the rally. On 23rd November 2023, the protesters, waving the national flag and chanting slogans supporting former King Gyanendra, gathered on the edge of Kathmandu and attempted to move toward the centre of the city. Riot police blocked them, beating them with bamboo batons and firing tear gas and a water cannon. There were minor injuries on both sides.
The police reportedly arrested a total of 261 protestors who were eventually released by the end of the day.
Supporters of the former king came to Kathmandu from all over the country to demand the return of the monarchy that was abolished in 2008. They accused the government and political parties of corruption and failed governance.
Police detain 28 activists for marching in a no-protest zone
On 15th December 2023, the police arrested 28 protestors of the Brihat Nagarik Andolan (BNA), a citizen movement. They were arrested while marching from Bhadrakali to Maitighar Mandala demanding justice for loan shark victims.
They were arrested as they marched towards a no-protest zone. On 20th November 2023, the District Administrative Office in Kathmandu declared the Maitighar to Baneshwar road section as an area prohibited for protests for a month. The order prohibits gatherings in groups of more than five people, staging protests, demonstrations, processions, hunger strikes, or meetings in the area. The order was issued ahead of protests planned by the UML youth wing.
Brihat Nagarik Andolan (BNA), which translates as the Greater Citizens’ Movement, was formed in 2021 to highlight the country’s deteriorating political climate. The BNA sought not just to resolve the immediate crisis but also to demand greater accountability from the political class. It called for structural changes to address the historical inequities in Nepali society and establish more inclusive, transparent and representative governing institutions.
Two killed in youth protest around language test
At least two people died on 29th December 2023 during a confrontation between security forces and hundreds of demonstrators in Nepal who were protesting to be able to take a language test that would allow them to travel to South Korea to find work.
The protest began when a group of between 200 and 300 people took to the streets of the city of Lalitpur, a few kilometers from the capital. The protesters, who had failed the language test for the shipbuilding sector, were demanding to retake the exams to be employed in the Korean manufacturing sector.
During the demonstration, they attempted to break into the examination centre and security forces attempted to disperse them with a police assault and tear gas. The Superintendent of Police of Lalitpur, Nawaraj Karki, told EFE that two protesters were injured and later pronounced dead in hospital, without specifying the causes of death. However, he clarified that one of them received a bullet in the thigh and the other was seriously injured while running during the protest.
54 individuals were arrested during the protest, according to police, several of whom were responsible for setting fire to the vehicle carrying Minister of Physical Infrastructure and Transport Prakash Jwala, who escaped unhurt.