Big Brother is listeningThe government has once again shown its tendency towards authoritarianism. It must stop.
George Orwell’s book 1984, published in 1949, talks of a fictional authoritarian state, Oceania, that includes Great Britain and conducts mass surveillance to control its citizens. But it seems that, in 2019, many countries in the world fit the mould that Orwell laid out. And in the past year, the Oli-led government has increasingly begun to adopt policies that would make Big Brother proud. Now, as if the backlash over curtailing the rights to free speech and expression wasn’t clear, the government has planned to table a bill in the National Assembly that would turn Nepal into a surveillance state. Civil society and the larger public must be on the alert—the government mustn’t be allowed to cite security as a reason to eviscerate Nepalis’ right to privacy and freedom.
While the argument for mass surveillance always centres around security and promises to limit such invasive actions to a small section of threats, states have been found to be misusing this mandate to surveil ordinary citizens. In the United States, for example, intelligence agencies have over the years—since the Bush administration—been given more and more freedom to tap phone lines and install video cameras everywhere. That advocates have been fighting in the US federal court system for more than a decade to deem phone tapping unconstitutional, and that the case remains unresolved, shows how difficult it is to declaw the state apparatus after such invasive powers have become entrenched. And this is in America, the supposed leader of the free world and champion of democracy.
Closer to home, the situation remains much worse. China remains the leader; eight of the world’s 10 most surveilled cities are found in the country. China has also been found to use surveillance technology to subdue its minorities, including in Xinjiang where much of the equipment and practices seem to be incubated. Perhaps in its recent alignment with China, from KP Oli’s promises of a rail link to the ruling party’s acceptance of Xi Jinping Thought, the government has thought that it is impervious to criticism and not accountable to the people. What else could explain the drawing up of this new surveillance bill within months of facing mass demonstrations against its perceived authoritarianism?
The Nepal Special Service Bill is being criticised because of the vagueness of its provisions. Clause 10, for instance, ‘states that audio or audiovisual conversation at the individual or institutional level that are suspicious can be kept under surveillance, monitored or intercepted’. Such an ambiguous statement can have the provision apply to any person, since it doesn’t specify what ‘suspicious’ entails. Moreover, state agencies have been known to abuse and misconstrue controversial laws in the recent past. YouTuber Pranesh Gautam was held and intimidated by the police this past June under provisions of the Electronic Transaction Act, even though his case at best was a simple libel or defamation one.
The problem here isn’t whether surveillance helps prevent crime, even though little correlation was found between the number of CCTV cameras and crime or safety. The issue is that mass surveillance, particularly the tapping of private conversations, is an infringement of every citizen’s right to privacy. Moreover, and especially with a government that has shown an affinity to push things through undemocratically, there lies a major danger that these new laws will be used to target dissenters and exert undue control on the people.
What do you think?
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