Government tables bill that will allow intelligence agencies to listen in to private conversationsProvisions in the bill contradict the spirit of the constitutional rights to freedom of expression and privacy, analysts say.
Amid reservations from the primary opposition, the government on Monday tabled a bill in the National Assembly that authorises intelligence agencies to access and collect all information relating to "suspects", including conversations through the electronic medium.
The Nepal Special Service Bill was introduced by the government to strengthen its intelligence capabilities to counter "threats to national security, sovereignty and integrity", according to the government. The bill, which was registered in the federal parliament on December 15, was tabled for extensive discussions a day after a House panel endorsed the controversial Information Technology Bill, which experts fear could curtail freedom of expression and increase surveillance over the personal data.
Prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office, the bill says it is necessary to control acts of "secession, espionage, sabotage and subversion" and "protect national sovereignty, national integrity and communal harmony". Clause 10 of the bill states that audio or audiovisual conversation at the individual or institutional level that are suspicious can be kept under surveillance, monitored or intercepted.
The Nepali Congress wanted to bar the bill from being tabled in Parliament, and Prakash Pantha, a member of the Upper House from the party, had registered a notice of protest, stating that the bill is against the spirit of the constitution and international principles of freedom. His proposal to stop the bill from introduction into the House was rejected by a majority vote, allowing the government to present it for further discussion.
“The bill has been brought with the ill intention of silencing dissenting voices. It is against individuals’ fundamental rights to freedom and privacy,” said Pantha in the House while demanding that the bill be stopped. “The ruling party must not forget that ours is not a communist country.”
The government, however, defended the bill, arguing that the opposition's allegations hold no ground. Minister for Finance Yubraj Khatiwada, who tabled the bill on behalf of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, said its sole motive is to strengthen the state's intelligence. Counterintelligence is practiced all over the world and Nepal too needs to control any acts against the national interest. “However, we can discuss which clause of the bill contradicts fundamental rights,” he said in response to Pantha’s concerns.
The bill will be sent to a parliamentary committee for discussions before it is presented for endorsement.
Legal experts say that given the record of the incumbent Oli government, the bill provides ample room to doubt its intentions. Provisions to surveil individuals are against the spirit of the constitution, they say.
Mohan Lal Acharya, a legal expert who worked as a consultant for the Constituent Assembly, says the bill infringes on the constitutional right to freedom of expression and privacy.
“There are different ways to control anti-national activities. The clause to intercept conversations cannot be justified under any pretext,” Acharya told the Post. “The government’s recent actions indicate that it is becoming more rigid and taking an authoritative path.”
Ever since coming to power, the Oli administration has introduced around half a dozen bills that could be used to shrink civic space, and curtail freedom of expression and press freedom.
The Media Council and Information Technology bills that are under consideration in Parliament have provisions of hefty fines and imprisonment for what the government deems “improper content”. The government is also in the final stages of readying the mass media bill, which too has provisions aimed at controlling the media.
The amendment bill to the National Human Rights Commision Act too has also been dragged into controversy as some of the planned provisions treat the constitutional body like the government’s subordinate when the commission is a constitutional body.