Amnesty urges Nepal to amend proposed IT bill which 'criminalizes freedom of expression'

Shirish B Pradhan

Kathmandu, Jan 16 (PTI) Amnesty International on Thursday urged Nepal to amend a proposed bill which it fears could be used to criminalize the right to freedom of expression in the country.

In a statement, the global human rights watchdog said Nepal's parliament must amend the Information Technology Bill (IT Bill) to bring it in line with international standards.

'Provoking widespread criticism from Nepal's civil society, the proposed IT Bill would empower the government to arbitrarily censor content online, including on social media and punish offenders with up to five years' imprisonment and a fine of 1.5 million Nepali rupees (about USD 13,000),' it said.

It said that Nepal was once envied by people across the region for its openness towards critical views and opinions. That reputation is now at risk as the government continues to crackdown on what people say, write and even sing.

'The IT Bill and all other legislation must be amended and brought in line with international law and standards to guarantee people's right to freedom of expression,' Biraj Patnaik, South Asia Director at Amnesty International, said.

The IT Bill is one of three proposed pieces of legislation that use vague and overbroad clauses to unduly restrict the right to freedom of expression. The bills have been proposed against the backdrop of intensifying attacks on free expression in the country, Amnesty said.

'In 2019, laws like the Electronic Transactions Act 2006 were used to arbitrarily detain journalists for publishing stories which criticised the government or others who posted critical comments online.

'In April, journalist Arjun Giri was charged under the Act for reporting on financial fraud. In June, comedian Pranesh Gautam was arrested for posting a satirical film review on YouTube. In October, musical artists Durgesh Thapa and Samir Ghishing popularly known as VTEN, were arrested for the content of their songs,' it said.

Amnesty said that several provisions of the IT Bill do not meet the international human rights law and standards.

'For instance, section 94 of the bill vaguely criminalizes people who post content on social media if it is deemed to be against national unity, self-respect, national interest, relationship between federal units,' it said.

Other provisions, which are open to very wide interpretation, could also be abused to stifle critical opinions, satire, public dialogue and public commentary. For example, the bill prohibits 'teasing', 'deceiving', 'demotivating' and 'demeaning', it said.

Section 88 of the bill also restricts the publishing of such content through use of any electronic medium, which could include news sites, blogs and even emails, Amnesty added.

'Under international human rights law, states are permitted to limit the right to freedom of expression, but these limitations must be set forth in law in a precise manner, and be necessary and proportionate to a legitimate aim, as stipulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nepal is a party.

'If passed in its current form, the provisions in the IT Bill further risk creating a chilling effect and will ultimately give rise to censorship and self-censorship online where people will no longer be able to share their feelings or debate ideas freely and without fear of repression,' Patnaik added. PTI SBP CPS